Penguin colony flourishing after being driven to brink of extinction

February 22, 2012 By Justin Norrie
The colony of King Penguins on Macquarie Island was almost extinct by 1930. Credit: John van den Hoff

Eighty years after slipping to the brink of extinction, a colony of King Penguins at Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean has rebounded and is flourishing through conservation efforts, Australian researchers have found.

Using , a team from Griffith University’s Environmental Futures Centre compared samples from the current population with shavings taken from sub-fossil bones to show that the modern-day birds have recovered the genetic diversity of their forebears.

Two very large colonies were present when Macquarie Island was discovered in 1810, one at the Isthmus and one at Lusitania Bay.

But the first settlers “sought to harvest blubber oil, among other products, initially from Fur Seals followed by Elephant Seals, King and finally Royal Penguins”, the researchers reported in the journal Biology Letters.

As a result, the King Penguin colony at the Isthmus on Macquarie Island was wiped out by 1894 and the colony at Lusitania Bay was reduced to about 3400 birds by 1930.

The oil blubber industry devastated not only the Macquarie Island populations of the species but also populations on other islands, most of which are now on the rise again, said lead researcher and PhD candidate Tim Heupink, who worked in collaboration with John van den Hoff from the Australian Antarctic Division.

There are now up to 500,000 King Penguins across the island.

Macquarie Island was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933, a state reserve in 1972 and a World Heritage area in 1997. The protection allowed the population to flourish again.

“The research shows that King Penguins on were remarkably quick at recovering genetic diversity lost in the past. In just 80 years they reached the genetic diversity measured in a reference population from 1,000 years ago,” said Mr Heupink.

“It also shows that by comparing ancient and modern DNA we can monitor the success of (and other human impacts). In this case, putting an end to exploiting King Penguins and controlling fishing and pests have clearly helped them to recover so quickly.”

This method, of comparing ancient and modern DNA, can be used on any species that leaves behind bones and in which the DNA is relatively well preserved, he said. “It’s already been used for other species, but this study is one of the few where a recovery of genetic diversity is actually seen.”

Explore further: New technology will help to protect South African penguins

Related Stories

Want to monitor climate change? P-p-p-pick up a penguin!

April 4, 2007

We are used to hearing about the effects of climate change in terms of unusual animal behaviour, such as altering patterns of fish and bird migration. However, scientists at the University of Birmingham are trying out an ...

Penguins OK with human visitors -- maybe

January 26, 2006

Scientists report human contact has no immediate negative effects on Magellanic Penguins, but seeing humans for the first time is stressful on them.

Recommended for you

Typhoid fever toxin has a sweet tooth

December 11, 2017

Although the insidious bacterium Salmonella typhi has been around for centuries, very little is actually known about its molecular mechanisms. A new study from researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine addresses this ...

Researchers develop powerful new method for microbiome analysis

December 11, 2017

Scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Sema4, and collaborating institutions New York University and the University of Florida today published a report detailing their new, more accurate method for identifying ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Feb 22, 2012
This proves, once again, that the abominable act of using wild animals for fuel and clothing must stop, or what little of our humanity that feebly remains will be lost for good.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.