Death of 42 penguins worries DOC

WILMA MCCORKINDALE IN DUNEDIN
Last updated 12:55 13/02/2013
Southland Times photo
WILMA MCCORKINDALE/Fairfax NZ
Department of Conservation staff David Agnew and Mel Young with one of the more than 40 yellow-eyed penguins which have mysteriously died on Otago Peninsula in the past three weeks.

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Department of Conservation manager biodiversity David Agnew said today there were positive signs that what ever was killing penguins on Otago Peninsula may have stopped.

Almost 50 birds, mainly important adult breeders, have turned up dead on beaches and nest sites since January 21.

But while more penguin bodies were being found, they were partly decomposed showing they were not fresh deaths, Dr Agnew said.

''That could be a sign that whatever is killing them has stopped. We'll keep our fingers crossed.''

Dr Agnew said a southerly change during the past few days could have returned local sea conditions back to normal, at the same time eradicating the danger.

''If that is the case we can say the event has passed... and document it.''

Contingencies were in place should more fresh deaths be discovered, Dr Agnew said.

That included removing healthy birds into captivity for a period, and further testing, including testing of local waters.

The deaths were a major concern. Of the local population of between 450 and 500 breeding pairs on the Otago coast, 42 male and female adult birds had been found dead, leaving about 30  penguin chicks without adults to feed them.

Dr Agnew said yellow-eyed penguin chicks tended to have a low survival rate, leaving maintenance of the adult bird population pivotal.

Earlier this week autopsies on some of the dead penguins by Massey University scientists shed no light on what was killing the precious birds.

Hopes for some answers are pinned on more specialised bio-toxin testing carried out on the stomach contents of two of the specimens.

The results are expected tomorrow.

During the past week DOC staff, volunteers and members of the public have spent the past week combing beaches on the Otago coast plucking the corpses of the critically endangered birds from sand dunes and nest sites.

DOC programme manager biodiversity assets David Agnew's team is nervously awaiting the outcome of biotoxin testing being carried out in the North Island on two dead penguins, tests taken on the advice of Massey University scientists Stu Hunter and Brett Gartrell.

However, Massey scientist Mr Gartrell said he was not convinced the cause was biotoxin. He said in an email that more species should be affected by toxins. His advice was for DOC staff was to keep a lookout for unusual fish kills, red tides, and other dead marine species.

PHOTO GALLERY:  A few hours on Otago Peninsula's  Little Papanui Beach last night brought home the devastating reality of losing individual members of Otago's Yellow Eyed Penguin population. 

Photographer Wilma McCorkindale captured the images as marine biologist Dr Chris Lalas and landowner David McKay retrieve the dead among a population of about 50 they have monitored on David's Peninsula farm for the past 20 years.

While it was devastating to find four bodies, the men were relieved to find that most birds in the colony seemed healthy, including the chicks. Even though the chicks are due to fledge, they remain dependent on adults for food.

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