Blood parasite kills last penguin chick
Thursday 15th March, 2007A blood parasite has claimed the life of Big Fluffy, the sole survivor of 32 yellow-eyed penguin chicks hatched in the monitoring area on the north-west coast of Stewart Island.
The 109-day-old chick was found dead on February 28, just metres from his nest site, by Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust southern islands projects officer Sandy King. "This is devastating. Big Fluffy was just days away from venturing out to sea and to find him dead was a complete bombshell," Ms King said.
The chick, last seen alive on February 19, was fully feathered, of a good weight, and had plenty of fat reserves, making his chances of survival during the initial period at sea above average.
The carcass was rushed to Massey University where a post mortem examination confirmed that Big Fluffy was killed by a blood parasite.
This is the worst season since the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust began the five year study to investigate the reasons for Stewart Island's declining yellow-eyed penguin population.
Massey University is looking at the role of disease and results which so far suggest that the blood parasite is present within the adult population but has not been associated with adult mortality, adding to the puzzle surrounding Stewart Island's declining population. Massey is now working to understand how it causes mortality and interacts with the other known threats such as diphtheritic stomatitis (also known as avian diphtheria) and starvation.
University of Otago researchers are presently examining the penguins' foraging patterns and diet to determine whether a nutritional deficiency may be making the chicks more likely to die from disease.
Ms King said the chicks in other areas of Stewart Island had not been affected to the same extent as those along the Anglem coast where the number of nests present had fallen from 27 to 20 over the last four years.
"While there are no definite answers, the possibilities are being narrowed down, but in order to fully understand what is happening to these penguins, ongoing research is required. We would not have uncovered this problem if we hadn't been monitoring."
The Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust's current study on Stewart Island has one more year to run.