The yellow-eyed penguin—a rare species named for its distinctive band of golden feathers—has become one of New Zealand’s most prominent cultural icons (second to the kiwi, of course). Images of the penguins are stamped on the country’s $5 notes and splashed across airport billboards. Tourism centered on the birds contributes some $100 million NZD to the local economy each year. But a new study suggests that these beloved penguin populations are perilously declining, Kendra Pierre-Louis reports for Popular Science.
(From Smithsonian Magazine / by Brigit Katz) — New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguins make their home on the Otago Peninsula, on the east coast of South Island. Extensive records of the birds’ population have been kept since the 1940s; researchers from the University of Otago relied on data recorded at Kumo Kumo Whero Bay between 1937 and 1948, and data recorded at at Boulder Beach between 1982 and 2015.
Models were then used to estimate future population size, and the results suggest that the birds will be locally extinct by 2060. And when researchers factored in sudden die-offs—like the one that occurred in 2013—the date of extinction became much sooner. The birds could be locally extinct as early as in the next 25 years, Dr Stefan Meyer, one of the study’s the co-authors, says in a University of Otago press release.
But as Pierre-Louis reports, researchers caution that they do not have enough data to fully quantify human impact on penguin populations. “Climate data is wildly available, so we have all of this climate data that we can use in our models, but we have hardly any quantifiable data for fisheries impact, rate of pollution, the impact of tourism, and so on,” Thomas Mattern, lead author of the study, tells Pierre-Louis. Gillnets, for instance, likely pose a significant threat to penguins; the nets are hung vertically in the water to catch fish, but penguins become entangled in them and drown.