Taronga research scientist Ben Pitcher recently returned from Montague Island, where he spent time studying little penguin colonies. Ben is interested in the sensory ecology of animals – that is, how they perceive and gather information from their environment and how they make decisions based on that information.
“The ocean is warming and the movement of the water is changing,” says Ben. “As the East Australian current strengthens and warmer water pushes down, little penguins may have to go to a different place to find food. If we can understand how they are finding food, we can predict whether they will be able to adapt to this change, or whether it will eliminate the cues they are using to find their food.”
Montague Island, a protected nature reserve adjacent to the NSW South Coast, is home to up to 8000 penguins. During his time there, Ben was looking into not only how the penguins find food, but also how they use the smell of that food to navigate back to their nests.
Ben and his fellow researchers were also studying whether penguins can recognise the smell of their own nests and differentiate their nests from their neighbours’. They did this by allowing young penguins to choose between artificial nests that smelt like their own or another penguin’s nest.
Taronga scientists are also working with Macquarie University on a research project that is tracking penguins as they forage for food along the East Coast of Australia. While on Montague Island, Ben and his colleagues attached GPS devices and accelerometers to 15 penguins and have since been following their movements to see where they go to forage.
From their studies, the researchers have been able to determine that smell is likely to play an important role in how little penguins experience the world, both to find food and to find their way home again.
Taronga also has a colony of about 50 little penguins. A visit to the zoo is a great opportunity to see these shy birds up close. Our scientists work with these birds to develop technologies and study techniques to help them with their conservation efforts for little penguins in the wild.