|The marine and terrestrial ecology of a northern population of the Little Penguin, Eudyptula minor, from Bowen Island, Jervis Bay.|
|University of Canberra|
The breeding success of the Little Penguin was significantly higher in northern populations compared with documented southern colonies. Several southern colonies including Phillip Island in Victoria and colonies in Tasmania, have been characterised by poor breeding success, increasingly later commencement of breeding, and declining populations. This study aimed to compare and contrast the ecological attributes of a thriving northern population with other documented colonies. I collected long term data on breeding success (1987 to 1997) of the Little Penguin on Bowen Island, and related variability in breeding success to ocean currents and climate patterns, foraging behaviour and diet, nesting habitat, and inter-specific and fisheries competition. The benefits of successional changes to nesting habitat on Bowen Island since active habitat management commenced in 1989 were examined, including the importance of burrow depth, aspect, distance to water from the burrow, and vegetation type on breeding success of the Little Penguin.
Morphological measurements of east coast penguins indicated a north-south cline, similar to that described in New Zealand. The Little Penguin was larger at higher latitudes. Whilst adults were sedentary and displayed a high degree of nest site fidelity, juveniles dispersed widely in their first three years, but then returned to the colony, sometimes to their natal burrow, to breed. This appears to be an adaptive mechanism, which selects for high quality nesting habitat. The study confirmed earlier findings that mature vegetation assemblages, namely woodland and forest, support higher breeding success than structurally simpler grassland and herbland habitat. This may contribute to observed differences in breeding success between northern and southern colonies, because many of the southern colonies have degraded nesting habitat.
Most important to the diet of the Little Penguin were clupeoids, which dominated the fish species of Jervis Bay. The substantial clupeoid resources were targeted by the tuna fishery for bait, in the same areas and coinciding with maximum demands (chick raising and fledging), as penguins. The potential quantity of baitfish taken from Jervis Bay was over 10,000 tonnes per year, which was well beyond the quantities raising concerns in other regions, although the fishery remains unregulated. Nevertheless, the foraging range of Bowen Island penguins was smaller than has previously been described. Little Penguins on Bowen Island had a heavy reliance on relatively shallow waters of the Bay, within 5 km of the island. Daily foraging distances exceeding 20 km coincided with low breeding success, sometimes below that required for population replacement. Greater daily foraging range during the breeding season in southern Victoria may explain in part why these populations are declining.
The principal mechanism for nutrient enrichment of Jervis Bay waters was the East Australia Current (EAC). This is a large and powerful, warm water boundary current of 250 km diameter and 1000 feet depth, which promoted slope water intrusion through upwelling along the New South Wales coast during the study, particularly during the penguin breeding season. The EAC effects northern colonies, but less so southern colonies.
The Bowen Island colony was prone to periodic breeding failure, which was related to the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon, indicated in Australia by the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI), ENSO warm events, corresponding with negative values of the S0I, depressed the EAC and caused downwelling, leading in some seasons to increased breeding failure. There was a correlation between both fledging success and adult mortality, and the SOI. The mean breeding success of the Bowen Island colony, at 1.46 chicks per pair over the ten-year study, was the highest recorded for the Little Penguin, and the population was increasing.
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