Safety signs help Little Penguin colony

The fragile colony of Little Penguins on Granite Island will be safer thanks to new signage that better informs the public how to prevent the colony from being threatened by interfering behaviours.

Collaborating with the Department of Environment and Water and Green Adelaide, dedicated Flinders University researchers have designed new signs that identify intrusive human interactions as timely support for the struggling colony that had shrunk to only 16 animals in early 2020.

The signs were developed in response to an increase in human and dog disturbances on Granite Island since 2016. Specifically, disturbances at night increased from less than 2% of the monitored nights before 2016 to more than 20% of the nights in 2017 and onwards. Disturbances include unauthorised dogs (on or off leash), bikes and people wandering or actively searching for penguins using white torches or flashes (Colombelli-Négrel 2019, 2020).

The population of wild Little Penguins on Granite Island in South Australia has been the subject of intensive study by Flinders University researchers since 2012 – but this research was under threat during 2020 after disruptions to nightly monitoring of the penguins.

A Little Penguin on Granite Island.

Fortunately, the input of citizen scientists and Flinders student volunteers have provided the solution to a threatened environmental analysis program.

Dr Diane Colombelli-Négrel, Flinders University Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and a principal investigator of BirdLab research group, is South Australia’s only Penguin Ecologist and is thrilled by the volunteers’ enthusiasm.

This includes the contribution of Flinders student Lauren Common, PhD student in the BirdLab, who created the artwork for the new penguin safety signs – as well as for the yellow tops that volunteers wear at night to conduct penguin surveys.

“Compiling data about the penguins had been conducted by guides hosting nightly tours of Granite Island – but the combination of COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings, and attacks by foxes that almost halved the Little Penguin population to only 16 animals, meant that the nightly tours stopped,” says Dr Colombelli-Négrel.

Volunteer involvement rescued the research program. From October 2020, several Flinders University students living in the Victor Harbor area answered the call to join a volunteer roster – including Lucinda Gray, Maddie Turley and Nicole Fickling, along with an enthusiastic collection of other local residents – to monitor the penguins each night, and the research program is once again robust.

This has led to continuing research being published about little penguin behaviour throughout South Australia – including a paper focused on populations at Emu Bay in Kangaroo Island and Troubridge Island, titled ‘Behavioural and heart rate responses to stressors in two populations of Little Penguins that differ in levels of human disturbance and predation risk,’ by Dr Colombelli-Négrel and Rebecca Schaefer, published in Ibis: International Journal of Avian Science (DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12925).

“Our study supports the idea that populations exposed to constant and unpredictable disturbance (such as predator, human or conspecifics in a closed habitat) display elevated behavioural and physiological responses to threats compared with those in less disturbed areas, and that guidelines for managing penguin species cannot be generalised across species or populations,” says Dr Colombelli-Négrel.

Dr Colombelli-Négrel has trained the group of Granite Island volunteers to record specific information about the behaviour of the Little Penguins – including their feeding, moulting and mating cycles – and most importantly to not disturb the birds, especially by not exposing them to white torch light.

“It’s an important two-way information process. Not only do we assess the behaviour of individual Little Penguins, but the program also has an influence on human behaviour,” says Dr Colombelli-Négrel. “Through studying the effects of human disturbance on Little Penguins, we can help prevent any further shrinkage of their population.”

The annual public census of Little Penguins on Granite Island, held in October each year, attracted the largest group of volunteers in 2020, with 65 helpers – including 10 Flinders students – spending a day to count and locate active burrows all around the island. What they found is encouraging, noting that the remaining adult Little Penguins on Granite Island are breeding.

“Our work is making a difference,” says Dr Colombelli-Négrel, “and it shows the input of citizen scientists working at its best.”

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