New research proves little blue penguins in Australia and NZ are different species gallery video

ROSS GIBLIN\Dominion Post

Australian and New Zealand little penguins are distinct species: A team of researchers from the University of Otago and University of Tasmania has discovered that Australian and New Zealand little penguins represent two distinct species, rather than one.

The theory that little blue penguins from New Zealand and Australia are the same species has been smashed by new research that reveals they are two species – and that they also have different "accents".

Previously, scientists believed little blue penguins, the world's smallest penguins, from either side of the Tasman were one species.

But genetic studies by a trans-Tasman team of researchers from Otago and Tasmania universities found they were two endemic species.

It's official: New Zealand's little blue penguins are an endemic species and not the same as their Australian cousins.
CRAIG MCKENZIE/STUFF

It's official: New Zealand's little blue penguins are an endemic species and not the same as their Australian cousins.

"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," said Dr Stefanie Grosser, who carried out the study as part of her Otago University PhD project.

Other researchers had found little blue penguin calls differed between Australian and New Zealand birds, with females preferring the calls of males of their own species.

"You could say the Aussies like hearing 'feesh', while 'fush' sounds better to Kiwi ears," Grosser joked.

A little blue penguin nesting in Kaikoura.
SUPPLIED

A little blue penguin nesting in Kaikoura.

Discovering endemic little blue penguin species on either side of the Tasman highlighted the need to manage and conserve them separately, she said.

The team recommended elevating the Australian little blue penguins to full species status, named Eudyptula novaehollandiae, and New Zealand's to remain Eudyptula minor.

Another surprise from the research was the discovery the Australian species was present in Otago.

"Our genetic data suggest that the Otago and Australian populations are quite closely related," Grosser said.

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They were working to better establish the Otago little blue penguin population's history using ancient DNA.

Otago University zoology professor, Dr Jon Waters, who was involved in the study, said the research highlighted that there was much yet to be discovered about our region's unique wildlife.

"The new recognition of endemic species, unique to our region, is crucial for managing our natural heritage."

The study was funded by the Marsden Fund, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, and the Allan Wilson Centre, one of New Zealand's seven Centres of Research Excellence.

It was published on Tuesday in the international journal PLOS ONE.

 - Stuff

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