• Yellow-eyed penguin in the Catlins. Photo credit: Rhiannon DaviesYellow-eyed penguin in the Catlins. Photo credit: Rhiannon Davies

The University of Otago documents one of the fastest biological transition events

An international research team led by the University of Otago’s Department of Zoology has documented one of the most rapid biological transition events ever found.

The team has been examining archaeological penguin remains from coastal New Zealand, and has used carbon dating and DNA analysis to establish when different colonies of the bird may have formed and when they have gone extinct.

New Zealand was first inhabited by a species called the waitaha penguin, present at the time of human arrival to the country.  The waitaha became extinct due to over-hunting and habitat change, within 200 years of Polynesian settlement of New Zealand, and around the same time as the giant flightless Moa bird.

However, it took only a few decades before the yellow-eyed penguin arrived on the mainland from the sub Antarctic and a new colony formed that remains in southern New Zealand today.  It is unusual for this re-colonisation to have happened so quickly, unless there was some substantial shift in the amount of human pressure at the time. 

Using carbon dating, the research team have been able to date the re-colonisation at around 1500 AD; interestingly recent archaeological studies suggest that there was a decline in the Maori population in southern New Zealand at this time as well. This unique combination of events is why the yellow-eyed penguins were able to establish a colony, which remains in New Zealand to this day.

You can read about studying in New Zealand here.

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