Australian researchers are strapping satellite tracking technology to little penguins to shed light on their marine environment. A team of scientists from Macquarie University has teamed up with researchers at Sydney's Taronga Zoo to carry out the study.
The researchers are attaching GPS trackers and accelerometers to the penguins to work out where they are searching for food. It is technology commonly found in most smartphones, with the accelerometer monitoring the penguin's orientation and movement. The scientists are studying the zoo's captive colony as well as the wild population found at Montague Island off the far south coast of NSW.
The project is part of a larger multispecies study aiming at identifying important marine hotspots and improving the management and zoning of marine parks. The scientists are looking at how suitable certain breeding sites will be in the future due to food availability.
Macquarie University PhD student Gemma Carroll is leading the research. "If we can understand where they're feeding now and why those areas are important places for penguins to feed we can understand how, if the environment changes, those places that might be important might change as well," Ms Carroll said.
Taronga Zoo's David Slip says the species is extremely vulnerable to habitat change. "Managing the resources are really important to make sure there's enough for seals and penguins but also enough for us," Dr Slip said. "If their food moves off shore then they have to go further and it means it's a lot longer to get back to their chicks."
Macquarie University's Professor Rob Harcourt, who specialises in marine predators, says the research provides a window into an unknown world. "By working out exactly where they're going, what they're feeding upon and what the constraints are of those feeding then we'll be able to provide a lot more information," he said.
The study has already uncovered some interesting findings on the penguins' not so little appetites. One Taronga little penguin ate 22 pilchards in five minutes. The scientists are looking to collect at least another two years of data on the wild animals. Their hope it that the project will eventually be expanded into the long term to help measure oceanographic change in South Eastern Australia.