Little Penguin: Fairy Penguins in Australia

Colin Stahel + Rosemary Gales

illustrated by Jane Burrell
University of New South Wales Press 1987
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
As a study of the species Eudyptula minor one would expect Little Penguin to be rather specialised, but in fact it effectively teaches quite a bit of general biology, setting the fairy penguin in the context of broader ornithology, marine biology, ecology, and functional anatomy. I'm a firm believer in this approach to learning — detailed case studies in broader context — and Little Penguin is an accessible example, with lively prose backed up by informative halftones and diagrams.

Chapter one is a brief account of fairy penguin taxonomy and distribution.

"Penguins are widely distributed in the southern hemisphere, but all species are not, as is widely thought, confined to the antarctic. Those readers who, up to the present, have considered that the fairy penguin must be an antarctic resident are encouraged to read this book closely! Only two species are solely antarctic residents: the emperor penguin and the Adelie penguin. There is a much larger group of penguins that are found in the region known as the subantarctic, and further north there are a number of temperate zone penguins. Just to shatter any preconceptions, there is even a species of penguin that lives under the shadow of the equator: the Galapagos penguin."
There are six subspecies of little penguin, five found in New Zealand (where it is known as the blue penguin) and one in Australia.

Chapter two surveys penguin functional anatomy, and in particular their adaptations for life in the sea. These include denser feathers for waterproofing, skeletal modifications for swimming, eyes modified to cope with refractive index changes between water and air, and glands for disposal of excess salt.

"Oxygen extractive efficiency gives the percentage of inspired oxygen in air that is extracted from each breath. In resting fairy penguins this value averages 50 percent. By comparison, mammals have an oxygen extraction efficiency of approximately 15 percent, and other birds ... approach 30 percent."
Thermoregulation is a particular problem for little penguins: on the one hand they must maintain a body temperature of around 38.5 celsius in cold water; on the other they can't cope with air temperatures above 35 celsius, which can create problems when nesting. These constraints probably set the limits of their range.

Chapter three describes the fairy penguin life-cycle and lifestyle. Fairy penguin pairs typically build nests around the end of September (they nest in burrows, aggregated in colonies), incubate their eggs in October, and raise nestlings through November and December. Females almost always lay two eggs, but often only one nestling will be fed (brood reduction). In January fairy penguins build up their body weight as preparation for moulting in February — not only is growing new feathers physiologically demanding, but moulting penguins lack waterproof feathers and can not survive at sea, so they effectively starve and can lose half their body weight. Tracking penguins at sea is difficult, but studies reveal that fairy penguins usually feed within 10 kilometres of the shore, that their maximum dive depths are around 10 to 30 metres (though some go down to 60 metres), and that their diet is predominantly fish and squid.

Chapter four is a very brief look at "the penguin problem".

"The fairy penguin is not immediately endangered or directly exploited, but there are a number of areas where the fairy penguin is potentially vulnerable and locally diminished as the result of man."
Threats to fairy penguins include pollution (especially oil spills), accidental netting and overfishing, introduced predators, habitat destruction, and some direct attacks.

December 2000

Related reviews:
- more animals + zoology
- books published by University of New South Wales Press
%T Little Penguin
%S Fairy Penguins in Australia
%A Stahel, Colin
%A Gales, Rosemary
%Q Burrell, Jane
%I University of New South Wales Press
%D 1987
%O paperback, b&w halftones, references, index
%G ISBN 0868402907
%P 117pp