Lonely Planet Writer

Scientists using penguins as front-line researchers off south-east Australian coast

Scientists are using the little penguin population of Phillip Island as front-line researchers in an attempt to reveal what goes on out in the sea off the south-east coast of Australia.

Scientists are using little penguins to see how life is influenced on the ocean wave due to climate change
Scientists are using little penguins to see how life is influenced on the ocean wave due to climate change Image by Ken and Nyetta/ CC BY 2.0

Sensors attached to the seabirds are being used by scientists at Monash University and Phillip Island Nature Park to get a bird’s eye view of life on the ocean wave.

The use GPS chips is allowing scientists to trace the penguins eating patterns and see what changes climate is forcing on their diet
The use GPS chips is allowing scientists to trace the penguins eating patterns and see what changes climate is forcing on their diet Image by Tim J Keegan/ CC BY 2.0

Biologist Andre Chiaradia told ABC.net.au that by putting on a chip on the penguins similar to a GPS, they will find out many things, including how much energy the birds expend when they go out to sea.

Most importantly they hope to find out what sort of interaction there is between the penguins and the ecosystems they encounter.

Associate Professor Richard Reina said the research was an opportunity to build a big picture over an area that is difficult to cover. Using the birds would help to save a lot of time and effort because they know where to go, he added.

Scientists believe that temperature in the Australian south-eastern area are rising quicker than virtually anywhere else across the globe.

Professor Reina it was important to understand the changing face of the marine ecosystem because organisms were “highly flexible” and capable of changing and responding. Penguins were prime examples in that ecosystem in that they alter where they feed and when to breed.

The penguins will push through a special weighbridge that identifies every bird as they come into the colony.

By identifying which one it is and where it has gone and how much they weigh, the scientists will know how much they are eating. And thanks to DNA, they will learn in what areas they eat as well.

According to Cathy Cavallo, a PhD student the work had already produced interesting results by showing the penguins eating salps and jellyfish. That tells the researchers if the food meet their needs or if they are being affected by climate change.