Dogged research records revival of Little penguin colony
The story behind Amanda Peucker’s research towards her PhD is part Australian bush yarn, part Brothers Grimm fairytale.
There’s a great old character, cute little native animals, big bad foxes if no big bad wolves, some heroic dogs and it would seem at the moment a relatively happy ending.
It all began when Amanda heard of Allan “Swampy” Marsh’s idea to protect a dwindling colony on Little penguins using Maremma dogs, the so-called Italian sheepdog.
Swampy Marsh’s view was that if they could be used successfully to keep foxes away from farm livestock, his chooks in particular, why not the penguins on Middle Island, near Warrnambool.
However, when she first heard of the experiment Amanda was not so convinced it would work and so offered to monitor developments.
“I was a little scared, I guess,” she said.
“The penguins had already started breeding before they put the first trial dogs on the island and I did think that perhaps the penguins would stop breeding and the chicks would die.
“I was pleasantly surprised that the chicks kept being fed, the penguins kept coming up and the dogs kept the foxes away.
“The population has grown slowly but it's grown steadily. A few years ago, before the trial commenced, we only had four penguins arrive and no breeding that we could find and then it's steadily grown so that this year we've had 80 penguins arrive and at least 26 chicks fledge.
“Nothing like this has ever been done before. There hasn't been a colony that's just about been decimated and then been allowed to build up naturally with the removal of the threat, so really this is a first.”
The experiment has not been without its setbacks. One set of Maremmas was inclined to wander too far away from the penguin colony, perhaps chasing the foxes.
Another incident led to the death of 10 penguins.
“We're not really sure what happened because nobody saw what happened,” Amanda said.
“But the behaviour wasn't predatory in any way. Either they were playing with the penguins or they were trying to remove them from threat.
“The dogs involved in that incident have now been replaced with two Maremmas that have been mingling with penguins since they were born, because, even though guarding animals might be in the genes, island life is a far cry from a farm.”
Amanda’s work, which culminated in her handing in her thesis last month and then heading to Central Australia for a well-earned holiday, has involved more than counting penguins.
She has been examining the population genetics of 19 Little penguin colonies finding evidence to link colonies in NSW, Tasmania and Victoria, including the one at Middle Island.
Her work also looked at whether there were subspecies of Little penguins, which originated in New Zealand. Whilst the ones in the southeast of New Zealand appear genetically similar to those in Australia, she believes the New Zealand and Australian colonies are still of the same species.
Amanda has also determined measurements that distinguish the penguins' gender, which differs at each colony, with males tending to have deeper bills. Before this discovery, it was extremely difficult to work out their gender without dissecting them.
Prior to her work on little penguins, Amanda’s studies involved Adélie penguins, yaks and sea anemones.