Did you know that little penguins, A.K.A. fairy penguins, were first described by renowned German naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster in 1781. We will put forth more of such facts about these flightless birds found in Australia and New Zealand.
What’s in a Name?
The word Eudyptula in the scientific name of the little penguin is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘good little diver’.
In one of his interviews, Linus Torvalds―the creator of Linux―famously quipped … I was bitten by a ferocious fairy penguin: you really should keep those things locked up! But obviously, Trovalds was joking, ‘coz little penguins are far from ferocious. In fact, they defy the stereotyped image of the bird. They are neither black and white, nor are they found in Antarctica. Nevertheless, this penguin attack did inspire Trovalds to use a penguin as the official mascot of the Linux kernel, and thus came into existence Tux.
Fun Fact: Johann Reinhold Forster came across little blue penguins when he accompanied Captain James Cook on the latter’s voyage around the world. Forester was one of the first naturalists to describe penguins, and even has a species named in his honor – the emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri).
Interesting Facts About the Fairy Penguin
Where does the fairy penguin live?
Fairy penguins are found in large colonies along the coastline of southern Australia and New Zealand. Even Tasmania and Chatham Island have a fair share of fairy penguin population. Furthermore, the species has been reported in Chile in South America as well, but these are probably vagrant individuals who lost their way and reached there.
Are little penguins same as fairy penguins?
Fairy penguins are known by different names in their native habitat. While the name fairy penguin is popular in Australia, in New Zealand they are called little penguins, little blue penguins, or blue penguins. The prominence of the word ‘blue’ in their name can be attributed to their obvious bluish plumage. And as for Chile, there they are called Pingüino pequeño.
What about their genus and subspecies?
The scientific name of the little penguin is Eudyptula minor. It belongs to the Eudyptula genus of penguins, which also has the white-flippered penguin (Eudyptula albosignata) to its credit. In the absence of a concrete classification, it is difficult to say how many subspecies of this bird exist. At times, even the white-flippered penguin is considered a subspecies of the little penguin.
How tall is a fairy penguin and how much does it weigh?
At 13 inches, the fairy penguin is the shortest penguin in the world. In terms of length, it measures roughly around 17 inches from head to tail. As for weight, it seldom weighs more than 3.2 lb. While its upper parts are slate-blue in color, it has white plumage underneath. This coloration technique, which is known as counter-shading, helps in camouflage. Additionally, a defining trait in this species is their coverts, which are grayish in color.
What does a fairy penguin eat?
The fairy penguin’s diet is dominated by cephalopods and crustaceans, including different species of squid, shrimp, krill, etc. Additionally, they also feasts on small school fish; the red cod for instance. These penguins are known to be inshore feeders, mostly resorting to shallow dives when feeding. They are out at sea feeding throughout the day, and yet, are seldom seen venturing beyond a range of 30 m.
Do fairy penguins have predators?
Fairy penguins are threatened by introduced animals like cats, dogs, rats, foxes, stoats, etc. This is perhaps the only species of penguin that is threatened by so many land animals. Besides these animals, they are also preyed up on by reptiles, birds of prey, large fish, and marine mammals with whom they share their habitat.
Predation is not the only threat for this species. Ever-increasing ocean pollution has also started taking its toll on their population, with plastics and oil spills being the main culprits. Additionally, seasonal changes in natural food supply can also affect their population, which isn’t really surprising considering that they need to eat about 25 percent of their body weight every day.
What are the adaptations of fairy penguins?
For a species as small as this, survival is definitely a tough task, and therefore, they are armed with quite a few adaptations to help them out. A streamlined body, flippers, webbed feet, and specially adapted eyes make foraging underwater easier for them. When they are out of the water, they use their claws for digging and climbing slippery rocks. Their flattened corneas help them see underwater as clearly as they see outside water. Additionally, there is the third eyelid to protect their eyes, both underwater and outside.
Also coming to their rescue is the counter-shading camouflage technique. In species resorting to this technique, the upper surface is dark, while the underside is light-colored, mostly white. When little penguins are in the water and birds of prey see them from above, their dark coloration helps them blend with the sea, and when sea mammals and large fish see them from below, their light coloration helps them blend with the sky. It doesn’t just help them avoid predators, but also adds stealth to their arsenal, as they can close in on their prey without getting noticed.
How long do fairy penguins live?
Fairy penguins have an average lifespan of 6.5 years. However, in exceptional cases, they are known to live for up to 20 years or more. In fact, there have been instances wherein these little birds have survived for 25 years in captivity.
With an estimated population of around 350,000 – 600,000, fairy penguins are enlisted as Least Concern species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That can be deceiving though, as these birds have a limited geographic range and a whole lot of introduced predators to deal with. And to make matters worse, these birds are known to remain in the same colony for their entire life, so any attempt to relocate them can result in further problems.