How do you monitor yellow-eyed penguins’ responses to human disturbance without totally freaking them out?
Ursula Ellenberg, a researcher at the University of Otago, used fake eggs embedded with a heart monitor and surveillance cameras to measure yellow-eyed penguins’ reactions to visitors at Sandfly Bay on the Otago Peninsula, a popular destination for international tourists.
Yellow-eyed penguins are naturally shy and anxious creatures and they do not cope well with human contact. Even when they are carefully approached, their heart rate may double and stay elevated for up to half an hour. The more stressed out a yellow-eyed penguin is, the higher the chances are that it will abandon its nest. If there are people on the beach, the penguin will wait for a gap in the visitor flow to leave the water and approach its nest.
Highly visited breeding sights have had low weight chicks, and underweight fledged chicks do not survive to breed. A little extra fat is a kind of survival insurance so when chicks first venture out to sea they won’t starve to death while they are learning how to hunt for their dinner.
The chicks we released at the penguin hospital all weighed over 5.8 kilos; a good fighting weight for penguin chicks learning how to fish.