June 26, 2010

Yellow Eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes)

Birds have done the unthinkable...I have been known to make myself airborne on occasion (particularly when I launch myself from the top of the wardrobe down to the bed where my unsuspecting human is sleeping at 3 a.m.)...but birds have really taken flying and made it an art form. They are powerful and graceful masters of the sky.

Well, most of them are, anyway. And then you have the penguin.

At some point long ago, penguins decided that the sea was a better place to make a living than the sky, and they traded in their wings for flippers. Oh, they can still fly; they just prefer to do it under water. They are excellent swimmers. They are as agile and graceful in the water as any bird up in the sky. On land, though...well, you can't win them all.

Penguins come in many shapes and sizes, but one of the rarest and most interesting penguins is the Yellow Eyed penguin. The Yellow Eyed penguin gets its name from its yellow eyes and the distinctive yellow stripe that runs around its head. These guys are the most ancient species of penguin and the only member of its genus, Megadyptes. It is a fairly big penguin; it is the 4th largest overall. It is most likely the rarest penguin in the world and only lives on the coasts of New Zealand and its accompanying islands.

Penguins are known for being very social, but not this guy. The Yellow Eyed penguin is actually the least social of any penguin species and requires the largest territory size of any penguin. It will also not nest in sight of other birds. Instead, it prefers to build its nest in tall grass or behind a tree or a log. It will hang out on the beach with other Yellow Eyed penguins, but not too close, please. In a way, it is sort of the Greta Garbo of penguins. It likes its privacy, thank you very much.

The scientific name for the Yellow Eyed penguin, Megadyptes antipodes, literally means "big diver of the southern lands". Mega means "big", dyptes is "diver", and antipodes is, yes you guessed it, "southern lands". That's a good name for this penguin, because this guy is a big diver, indeed. The Yellow Eyed penguin can dive over 400 feet deep and hold its breath for 4 minutes. Its favorite food is fish and squid, and it can travel up to 30 miles from shore in search of dinner.
Of course, looking for dinner in the ocean also carries the danger that the diner may become the dinner, and a Yellow Eyed penguin is just the ticket for seals and sharks who would love to add a yummy bird entree to their fish-heavy menu. A Yellow Eyed penguin has got to be on his toes...or, flippers...when he's out in the ocean looking for squid.

Land is usually the safest place for the Yellow Eyed penguin to be, as New Zealand has no natural predators of the penguin. Unfortunately, it now has plenty of introduced ones, so the rarest penguin in the world has gotten a whole lot rarer in the last century. Animals not native to New Zealand, such as cats, dogs, ferrets, and stoats, were brought over by humans and have taken a heavy toll on native birds that are not used to dealing with these new predators. And on land, a penguin really has no ability to get away from a predator; his chances are actually much better in the sea with the seals and sharks, because at least in the water he can swim really fast.

Luckily, the New Zealand government has recognized the threat and has taken steps to help their unique penguin, including reducing habitat loss by establishing private, protected areas and easing hunting pressure by trapping the non-native predators in those areas. It's all designed to give the Yellow Eyed penguin a break and some room to breathe. And that's a good thing, because if there's one thing a shy Yellow Eyed penguin likes, it's having a room of one's own.