Macquarie Island Penguins Make an Inspiring Comeback
On the small Antarctic island of Macquarie, between New Zealand and Antarctica, there was once a population of roughly 3 million king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus). About one hundred years ago, this penguin colony, known as a rookery, was subject to a terrible slaughter at the hands of New Zealand blubber merchant, Joseph Hatch. He and his crew boiled the 3 million penguins to extract oil for lamps. Word got out of this mass killing, and an international campaign was established to protect what little penguins were left. Thanks to that campaign, the remaining rookery of merely 4,000 has blossomed to 500,000. Furthermore, genetic tests have found that the population’s genetic diversity has returned to pre-slaughter levels.
Joseph Hatch was born in London, England and became a qualified chemist. He travelled to Australia and then to New Zealand, settling in the town of Invercargill. He became mayor of the town and later served as Member of Parliament, serving Invercargill. However, his legacy is in the oil business and the near destruction of the Macquarie Island penguin colony.
Fortunately, outside forces stepped in to put an end to the carnage, saving the much reduced penguin population. Conservationists can celebrate as the colony climbs back up to its pre-slaughter levels.
However, the most remarkable part is that the remaining 4,000 penguins have recovered their past levels of genetic diversity in only 80 years.
The recent genetic study was conducted by Tim Heupink of Griffith University in Nathan, Australia. He took DNA from the feet of 17 live king penguins and compared them with DNA from bone shavings of 1,000 year old penguins dug up from the colony.
The study shows that if an endangered species is protected, it can regain its population and genetic diversity relatively quickly.
Unfortunately, the ecosystem of Macquarie Island is still troubled due to exotic species brought in by visitors in the Victorian Age. With the ships came rats and mice which colonized the whole island. Later visitors brought cats to eat the rats and mice, as well as rabbits for food.
Recently, a campaign to destroy the cats has caused a boom in the rabbit population which eat all the grass. This in turn leaves little cover for baby penguin chicks, exposing them to predators like the skua bird. Now, there is a campaign to eradicate the rabbits.
In the end, it is amazing how the introduction of invasive species can cause so much death. Another lesson to be learned from Macquarie Island.
Heupink's study was published in the journal, BiologyLetters.
Link to published article: http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/02/14/rsbl.2012.0053.abstract
King Penguin image via Shutterstock