Hope For Yellow Eyed Penguins

Posted on July 4th 2021

Yellow eyed penguins are the most endangered penguin species in the world. Found only in New Zealand and nearby islands, there are only 4000 left in the wild. They grow up to 79cm tall and weigh 8.5kg. Their unique yellow band of feathers that runs around the back of their heads makes them easily identifiable.

They are known locally as Hoiho, which means ‘noise shouter’ in Maori. Yellow-eyed penguins are great divers and mostly catch their food (such as molluscs and crustaceans) on the seabed. They are not very social birds, nesting away from each other rather than in colonies like other penguin species.

Decline of the species

Yellow eyed penguins have been in sharp decline in recent years. In some locations there has been as much as a 65% decline in population. The main cause is diphtheria like infections that are particularly deadly to young chicks. Infected birds struggle to eat due to mouth ulcers and if the infection spreads they can die of sepsis.

Treatment with antibiotics isn’t always effective. Up to 93% of yellow eyed penguin chicks catch avian diphtheria every year in New Zealand’s northern population of the birds, and up to 70% die.

New study offers hope

Up until now little was known about avian diptheria’s cause. However, a new study has identified the bacteria causing the infections, how it infects the chicks and how it can be treated so as to prevent the species from becoming extinct.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation worked with Massey University and University of Otago to collect mouth swabs from infected penguins on the Otago peninsula, on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The swabs were then analysed in the laboratory and the strain of diphtheria was identified.

Potential vaccine

Following identification, the team was able to devise simple tests to identify the infection quickly so that infected birds can be treated early, increasing their chances of survival.

In addition, the team is also looking at how the infection survives within the host. They identified a protein that aids the bacteria responsible, and they believe it can be modified so as to protect the birds. It may also provide the answer to a vaccine. All of these steps are vitally important if we are able to save the worlds most endangered penguin from extinction.

If you would like to find out more about how you can support penguin conservation please visit our penguin adoption page.


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