Vaccine progress good news for penguins

A waddle of yellow-eyed penguins, raised in rehabilitation at Penguin Rescue in North Otago last...
A waddle of yellow-eyed penguins. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Hope for Otago’s yellow-eyed penguins could come from an improbable 18,000km away.

Research led by Northumbria University, in the United Kingdom, could be an important step closer to a vaccine for a major killer of young yellow-eyed penguin chicks.

The research team includes scientists from the Department of Conservation (Doc), the University of Otago and Massey University.

It identified a new species of bacteria causing avian diphtheria, which is plaguing yellow-eyed penguin populations in mainland New Zealand.

The team also discovered some proteins that could be used as a vaccine, and could help protect the species from local extinction due to outbreaks of the disease.

Doc technical adviser Melanie Young said avian diphtheria had affected up to 93% of yellow-eyed penguin chicks in their northern range along the South Island’s east coast for more than 20 years.

The disease was fatal if left untreated.

"If chicks don’t survive year after year, this has a knock-on effect on population stability," she said.

Doc threatened species veterinarian Kate McInnes said the study helped people working with penguins to understand how the bacterium attacked baby yellow-eyed penguins.

"It means that we can focus our treatments to ensure that more yellow-eyed penguin chicks survive," she said.

Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust conservation science adviser Trudi Webster said at Moeraki, Penguin Rescue had been treating birds in the wild with antibiotics for several years.

In Dunedin, though, most of the treatments last year had been done after chicks were uplifted from their nests and taken to the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital.

Nests along the coast could be spread out and hard for conservationists to get to.

The daily doses of antibiotics used to treat avian diphtheria were highly stressful for both chicks and their parents, she said.

A vaccine that reduced the need for that much human intervention at penguins’ nests would be fantastic, Dr Webster said.

In November last year, the Otago Daily Times reported 100 yellow-eyed penguin chicks were taken into care with avian diphtheria that month.

University of Otago research fellow Sarah Saunderson said the collaboration with Northumbria University allowed significant progress with the research.

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