Little Blue Invader?

They have been hailed as possibly the cutest of their kind and after just one glance, most of us can probably understand why. They’re little, they’re adorable and who can resist that sweet little waddle? However, whilst we have been cooing away over the sheer cuteness of this little bird, others have been relentlessly studying their rather revealing history. Previously thought to be native species in their current locations, these little cuties are not all they seem. They are in fact, alien invaders! But, before we get carried away, these creatures have not been teleported onto our earth from a great UFO in the sky and are not biding their time, waiting to zap us all with heat rays. Luckily, this is not War of the Worlds penguin style (I think there’s a blockbuster in that). No! In fact, now found in New Zealand, this alien is an invasive species, an invasive species of the Aussie variety. So, without further ado, may I introduce the little blue penguin?

Obligatory ‘awe!’ all done and dusted, let’s get down to the facts. Little blue penguins, or fairy penguins as they are known in Australia, are the smallest penguins in the world, growing to approximately 30cm in height and weighing just over 1kg. Although originally thought to be a firm Kiwi, new research has shown that these little birds are originally from Australia and colonised New Zealand recently, filling a space in the ecosystem that had been created when the arrival of another alien (us humans), wiped out the local penguins. Now, when we say recently, we don’t mean a couple of years ago, we mean recently in terms of geological time, which remembers the battle of 1066 as if it were merely a few minutes ago. Indeed, it is thought that the invasion of these penguins happened between AD 1500 and AD 1900, with humans settling in Australia around the 1700s. This new research has been published by researchers from the University of Otago and was discovered through the use of ancient DNA analysis.

Analysing the bones of penguins found in New Zealand, aged at times both before and after humans arrived shows a sharp population turnover, where an Australian species, similar to the native New Zealand species, replaced the locals in Otago, on the Southern Island. It was found that every bone older than 400 years, belonged to the native New Zealand species. Through studies looking into genetic diversity, it has been estimated that the Aussie penguins started out with a population of roughly 3000, before spreading dramatically. Now, if I were to put an Australian little blue penguin in front of you and one of the native New Zealanders, you would struggle to tell which is which due to their visual similarities. In fact, they are so similar, they were thought to be one and the same, a single species. However, look beyond the feathers and they are distinguishable by one important factor. Their behaviour.

Not behaviour in the sense that New Zealand natives like to sit at home with a book, whilst the Aussies hit the waves, but rather that the Australian species can breed twice a year, whilst the New Zealanders can only breed once. In addition, digital analysis of their calls has highlighted more differences. Again, dispel those images of the Australian penguins waddling around, doing their very best Sting impressions and singing:

‘I’m an alien! A legal alien!’ (or maybe that should be illegal).

But rather the accents of their calls are very different. Described by one researcher as one group saying ‘fush and chups’, whilst the others say ‘feesh and cheeps.’

But one mysterious question still remains. Were humans responsible for this invasion? I am sure we would hardly be flabbergasted if the answer was yes. Looking at the facts, this answer is probable. The fact that these penguins had survived for so long before humans arrived and then managed to survive further north and further south on the island, where there are less human impacts, suggests that humans at least played a part.

Although this new information has been regarded as ‘exciting’, the researchers involved have pointed out that this will not be an isolated incident. In fact, there may be more than one secret alien invader, hiding in our ecosystems throughout the world!



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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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