RESEARCHERS at Phillip Island Nature Parks have started tests to future-proof the world-famous little penguins against climate change and the increasing incidence of heatwaves.
Five different artificial burrow designs are being tested on Phillip Island to see if they can reduce burrow temperatures and protect the penguins from more predicted extreme hot weather events, which can be deadly.
The research was revealed ahead of World Penguin Day on Saturday, April 25.
Phillip Island Nature Parks’ research director Dr Peter Dann said penguins were particularly vulnerable to hot spells, especially during their moulting season between February and April when they are confined to their burrows for up to three weeks.
“Any temperatures over 28 degrees mean they have to use energy to lose heat, and they lose water with every breath, so dehydration becomes an additional problem,” Dr Dann said.
“Images from thermal cameras show that penguins are producing a lot of body heat during moult, and adds to the difficulty of managing their thermoregulation in hot weather.”
The Nature Parks’ experts decided that the research needed to be fast-forwarded after a heatwave during last season’s moulting season led to the deaths of many penguins.
Based on trends provided by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO, Victoria will become warmer and dryer in the future.
“The wisdom is that these hot spells will increase in the future, so it’s important that we future-proof the penguins, if only as an interim measure while we address the significant causes of climate change,” Dr Dann said.
There are about 18,000 burrows on the Summerland Peninsula, including more than 1000 artificial burrows.
This number could be expanded if the tests determine that they provide better insulation and protection for the penguins to help them survive warmer temperatures. The tests will run for another year in collaboration with PhD student Lauren Towkowski from Latrobe University.
There are also tests with different plant species to provide more shade and be more resistant to fires. The frequency of fires is likely to increase in concert with the drier and warmer conditions.
GPS trackers have also been fitted to some penguins to see if their feeding patterns are changing as weather patterns change.
Phillip Island Nature Parks, including the world-famous Penguin Parade, are currently shut to tourists to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Still, the work continues behind the scenes to look after the animals.