500 year old fossils shed light on survival of yellow penguin

New Zealand researchers studying a rare and endangered Yellow-eyed penguin have uncovered a previously unknown species that disappeared about 500 years ago.New Zealand New Penguin

The research suggests that the first humans in New Zealand hunted the newly found Waitaha penguin to extinction by 1500, about 250 years after their arrival on the islands. But the loss of the Waitaha allowed another kind of penguin to thrive — the yellow-eyed species that now also faces extinction, Philip Seddon of Otago University. (1)
“Rarest of all the penguins, the Yellow-eyed penguin inhabits coastal forests of New Zealand and neighboring southern islands. Unique in appearance and behavior, these solitary birds have experienced population declines in the last 50 years due to habitat loss and predation by introduced species.
Yellow-eyed penguins have distinctive golden feathers which form a crown on their heads. This along with a bright yellow stripe running to the eye and around the back of the head are the distinguishing features of these elusive birds. They have slate grey-blue blacks with a white breast and belly, flesh colored feet, and thick reddish-purple bills. Immature birds have grey eyes and lack the yellow eye band and yellow head plumage. Chicks are covered with thick dark brown down feathers. Both sexes are alike, although the male does have slightly larger head and feet.
Yellow-eyeds spend most of their day at sea, feeding in the warm New Zealand waters. Amazing underwater swimmers, they can dive to depths of 400 feet and are adapted to holding their breath for up to four minutes.They may travel up to 20 miles from shore to feeding grounds at the edge of the Continental Shelf. There they scan the depths for opal fish, silverside, sprat, aruhu, red cod, and arrow squid.
Yellow-eyed penguins are forest nesting birds, preferring to nest in a secluded site backed up to a bank, tree or log. Coastal deforestation, however, has forced these penguins to seek refuge among tall shore grasses where adults, eggs and chicks frequently become prey to introduced dogs, cats, stoats, ferrets, and rats. Although they nest in loose ‘colonies’, mated Yellow-eyed penguins seek solitude, often nesting out of sight of each other.” (2)

“The research team was testing DNA from the bones of prehistoric modern Yellow-eyed penguins for genetic changes associated with human settlement when the team found some bones that were older and had different DNA.

Tests on the older bones “lead us to describe a new penguin species that became extinct only a few hundred years ago,” the team reported in a paper in the biological research journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Seddon said dating techniques used on bones pulled from old Maori trash pits revealed a gap in time between the disappearance of the Waitaha and the arrival of the yellow-eyed penguin. The Yellow -eyed penguin colonize New Zealand’s main islands around 500 years ago.

David Penny of New Zealand’s Massey University, who was not involved in the research, said the Waitaha was an example of another native species that was unable to adapt to a human presence.

‘In addition, it is vitally important to know how species, such as the Yellow-eyed penguin, are able to respond to new opportunities,” he said. “It is becoming apparent that some species can respond to things like climate change, and others cannot. The more we know, the more we can help.’

The Yellow-eyed penguin is considered one of the world’s rarest. An estimated population of 7,000 in New Zealand is the focus of an extensive conservation efforts.”(1)

Scientists find new penguin, extinct for 500 years – RAY LILLEY, A P
2006 photo November 19, 2008  the New Zealand Science AP Nov. 19, 2008 by the New Zealand Science Media Centre

Excerpts adapted from
1. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081119/ap_on_/as_sci_new_zealand_new_penguin;_ylt=AmPXQ5Kww9WrgKG
2. http://www.antarcticconnection.com/antarctic/wildlife/penguins/yellow_eyed.shtml

Gallery of photos http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/Scientists-find-penguin-that-disappeared-500-years-ago/ss/events/sc/111908waitaha;_ylt=Agd5WwQGbhcIy6kFRQn4iVRxieAA#photoViewer=/081119/481/6fd71bbfc1fe4c1abc4d12691ad7bfb7

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