Range of penguin personalities could help species success

Bird researcher Professor John Cockrem with a blue penguin in Oamaru.
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Bird researcher Professor John Cockrem with a blue penguin in Oamaru.

Scientists are spending one-on-one time with penguins to learn about the deeper sides of their personalities.

Learning more about how daring or shy penguins succeed could help guide penguin conservation, Massey professor John Cockrem says.

He is part of a research team made up of masters students from Massey University and Dr Philippa Agnew, from the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, that is two weeks into an eight-week study of the Oamaru penguins.

The group will take blood tests to find the amount of corticosterone hormone each penguin secretes when handled. The amount indicates where the penguins fall on a "personality spectrum" of timid and cautious, to daring and dominating.

"There's a huge range," Cockrem said. "The ones that are less sensitive to their environment tend to be the dominant more aggressive ones. They are also not so fast to change.

"The ones that are more sensitive to what's happening around them, they are more shy and are slow to explore, but they are more flexible to change."

Once the scientists have determined where each penguin falls on this personality scale they will compare this with their success in breeding, recorded in the Colony's ongoing population monitoring.

They will also use GPS to look at individuals' foraging patterns.

"The environment in which the birds live in is gradually changing. There are human influences and influences coming from climate change, so as these environmental changes occur, it may be that some animals are better able to change than other animals," Cockrem said.

However, that doesn't mean there is one perfect penguin personality.

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"You might think it's good to have a high stress response, but then why aren't all animals like that?" he said.

"The hypothesis that I've put forward and that we're testing here is that in some years the dominant bolder ones might do better, but in other years the more sensitive animals, the reactive ones, will do better. There's no perfect response."

Further studies Cockrem is involved in are looking at where penguin populations in the North Island feed.

The information will be combined with the current study and past blue penguin data to help give a bigger picture of how penguin populations adapt and which feeding areas are most important for penguin conservation.

 - Stuff

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