The yellow-eyed penguin, native to New Zealand and with the Maori name hōiho, is often described as the rarest penguin in the world. Measuring between 62-79 cm – a moderate height for a penguin – and living up to 20 years of age, the adult birds are distinctive for the bright yellow band which adorns the back of their heads, and for their pale yellow irises.
These penguins forage for their diet of small fish along the seafloor, diving depths of between 40-120 metres on trips that can last from several hours up to a full day. While they sometimes travel in small groups, they nest separately, out of view. Breeding first occurs at around three years old, and couples form long-term partnerships. Eggs are laid in September, with incubation duties lasting 39-51 days and shared by both parents.
The binomial name for the yellow-eyed penguin is Megadyptes antipodes. It is the sole extant species in the genus Megadyptes, sharing a common ancestor with the genus Eudyptes, which refers to those birds collectively known as crested penguins. The yellow-eyed and the crested penguin split from their common ancestor around 15 million years ago.
The yellow-eyed penguin can be found in coastal areas of New Zealand’s South Island, and on Stewart Island, Auckland Islands, and Campbell Islands. The Catlins and the Otago Peninsula serve as particularly popular locations for those wishing to catch sight of the birds.
Over the past decade, breeding stocks in Otago and Stewart Island have been especially hit by repeated outbreaks of avian diphtheria, along with starvation, an increase in barracouta attacks, and in 2013 an unexplained mass mortality thought to be the product of a toxic agent.
Already on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as endangered – the IUCN Red List is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the conservation status of species, with ‘endangered’ indicating a high risk of extinction in the wild – now the New Zealand Department of Conservation and the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust have highlighted another year of plummeting stock.
On Monday the two groups stated that nest numbers in the Otago and Southland regions have dropped from 491 pairs in 2012 to 160 observed pairs in 2015, with an expected high of 190. This is the lowest number of birds on record for twenty-five years.
Department of Conservation Coastal Otago biodiversity ranger Mel Young said that ‘The cumulative nature of multiple mass mortalities is coming home to roost. Every bird is important, and we are doing our utmost at each site.’
The DOC and YEPT have vowed to work closely over the coming months – along with Penguin Rescue, Penguin Place, Southland Forest and Bird, Otago University, landowners, locals, and volunteers – with increased beach patrols to check on the health of adults and to monitor nest sites.
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