Far from being Happy Feet, little penguins team up in deadly attacks on prey

14 August 2014

Little penguins are more likely to forage for food in groups, working together to target prey, new Deakin University research has found.

More than 60 little penguins (Eudyptula minor) were fitted with miniature GPS tracking devices at London Bridge in south-west Victoria's Port Campbell National Park so researchers could monitor their breeding patterns while searching for food.

More thought of as cute than predatory, the GPS devices showed the little penguins (formerly known as fairy penguins) actually worked deliberately together to target their prey.

Researcher from Deakin's School of Life and Environmental Sciences Maud Berlincourt said she found that little penguins foraged in groups and could synchronise their underwater movements, working together to concentrate their small schooling prey.

"We did not expect this behaviour, but it makes sense when you consider that foraging on schools of small mobile prey would be more efficient if done in a coordinated fashion, even loosely cooperative," Ms Berlincourt said.

"More than two thirds of the penguins worked with one or several other penguins to find prey. Almost half of the penguins (39) I monitored during the study between 2011 and 2013 also went diving with other individual penguins, some of them synchronising their diving activity together to hunt prey."

Ms Berlincourt said the study, to be published today in the international peer-reviewed scientific Plos One journal was significant because it highlighted the existence of previously unknown at-sea behaviour in little penguins.

Synchronized dives and foraging in the same locations have been observed previously in several other penguin species, but the degree of interaction between individuals was uncertain and little was known about how often penguins were associating with other individual penguins when at sea.

"This study was the first to look at a whole foraging trip and to examine spatial overlap in time and coordinated diving behaviour in little penguins, indicative of group foraging," she said.

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