• Little penguin in Otago. Photo credit: University of OtagoLittle penguin in Otago. Photo credit: University of Otago

Little penguins in Australia and New Zealand are distinct species

Scientists from both sides of the Tasman have been working together to research the genealogy of little penguins, and discovered that colonies of birds living in Australia and New Zealand are in fact two distinct species.

The researchers from the University of Otago and the University of Tasmania are investigating the relationships between the different populations of penguin (known colloquially as fairy penguins or blue penguins). The team used genetic techniques to compare birds from the two countries and were surprised to find that they are not the same species.

“We found a very strong pattern, where New Zealand has its own distinctive genetic group that is clearly very different from the Australian penguin populations,” says Dr Stefanie Grosser, who carried out the study as part of her Otago PhD project.

The two species also seem to have developed their own “accents”. Other researchers have previously shown that calls differ between Australian and New Zealand little penguins, with females preferring the calls of males of their own species.

Another unexpected finding of the study was the discovery that the Australian species—Eudyptula novaehollandiae—is surprisingly also present in Otago, in the remote southeast corner of New Zealand’s South Island. Dr Grosser said: “Our genetic data suggest that the Otago and Australian populations are quite closely related.” The team is now looking to better establish the history of this particular population using ancient DNA.

If you want to find out more about studying in Otago or Tasmania, contact Study Options for more information. If you are interested in studying your own PhD in Australia or New Zealand, please see this page for more information about how to apply.

One little penguin population is currently starring in the movie Oddball that is released in February in the UK – find out more in this BBC article.

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