We call them little blue penguins, Australians call them fairy penguins – it turns out they are different species.
A new study, published in PLOS One, compared trans-Tasman populations of little penguins and found they were different enough to be considered separate species.
Researchers from the University of Otago collaborated with those from the University of Tasmania to compare their respective local populations of little penguins.
Dr Stefanie Grosser worked on the study as part of her PhD at the University of Otago. She said the New Zealand population had its own distinctive genetic group that was clearly different to the Australian penguins.
The differences don’t end there: the Aussie and Kiwi species also appear to have their own “accents”. Previous research has found calls differ between penguins on either side of the Tasman and females tend to prefer males from their own region.
“You could say the Aussies like hearing ‘feesh’, while ‘fush’ sounds better to Kiwi ears,” Dr Grosser said.
“The recognition of unique penguin species on both sides of the Tasman highlights the importance of managing and conserving them separately.”
The researchers suggested New Zealand’s penguin should remain Eudyptula minor, while the Australian species should be called Eudyptula novaehollandiae.
An unexpected finding of the study was that E. novaehollandiae was also found in Otago. Further research will hopefully establish why the Australian species and the Otago population are so similar.
University of Otago’s Professor Jon Waters said the finding highlighted how much was still left to be discovered about New Zealand’s unique wildlife.
“The new recognition of endemic species – unique to our region – is crucial for managing our natural heritage.”
The researchers concluded that elevating the Australian little penguins to a separate species would warrant a reassessment of conservation status.
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Featured image: Little penguin, Stefanie Grosser.