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Can radio tags ‘tune in’ to penguin life?

Kaitiaki, scientists and teens are keeping a closer eye on Otago’s vulnerable penguins by attaching radio tags to the chicks.

Penguin being held by a student

At the very tip of the Otago Peninsula is an area that hosts a colony of kororā (little blue penguins), but until now it’s been tricky to know how these at-risk birds are faring.

Ecologist and kaitiaki Hoani Langsbury (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Mamoe, Waitaha, Rapuwai and Kāti Hāwea) is trying to change this, with scientists Hiltrun Ratz and Sally Carson as well as tauira (students) from across Ōtepoti (Dunedin).

The investigation team has started using a tiny piece of technology to help them glean more information about how successful these penguins are at having and rearing chicks, in a project called Pukekura Blue Penguins: Mātauranga & Mathematics.

Rangtahi learning about weeding and trapping

“Before now, we’d count the number of penguins coming in at night and check whether the nest boxes had penguins in them or not. This was a lot of work and only gave us limited information,” Hoani says. “This time, we’re using special tags that help us automatically collect better data about the penguins, such as how long they spend at sea at different times of the year.

“This is also an important opportunity for younger generations to explore what it means to be kaitiaki (guardians) so that they can continue this work after us.”

The project blends science and maths with mātauranga (Māori knowledge) and gives rangatahi (youth) an opportunity to explore Indigenous thinking and practices alongside European science.

For four days over four months, teens from schools across the wider Dunedin region have been taking a crash course in penguin care.

The students first learnt how to build new nest boxes for the penguins. Then they found out where best to put the nest boxes by looking at earlier research, which showed that ideal spots had bare flat ground in shady areas.

Students building a giant penguin box

Afterwards, the tauira planted native shrubs and removed weeds to make the rest of the land more suitable for the penguins.

“I really liked doing all the hands-on stuff, like moving the nest boxes, doing the planting, picking up the rubbish and weeding,” says Tobias, 13, from Kavanagh College.

Highlights for other rangatahi were staying late one evening to count the penguins coming in to nest, and the tagging event itself with scientist Hiltrun.

For the tagging, each chick was weighed and got a metal tag clipped to the webbing of their foot and an RFID (‘radio-frequency identification’) tag implanted in the back of their neck.

Student reading off a penguin chick's weightPenguin seen inside the weighing bag

The RFID tag used in the penguins does not actually emit a radio signal so it cannot be continuously tracked. Instead, the tag acts similar to how a shop’s security system works: a tag is only detected as it passes the antenna at the shop exit, which triggers an alarm.

For the penguins, antennae were set up near the path that the birds use to go in and out of the sea. These will automatically identify which penguins come ashore at what time, as well as count the total number of penguins moving between land and sea.

Students using an antenna to read an implanted RFID tagCloseup of students using an antenna to read an implanted RFID tag

“It's been a really cool experience,” says Mia, 13, from St Hilda's Collegiate School. “My favourite part was tagging the baby penguin because I got to hold it.”

Mia’s Dad, Chris, adds, “It's been so great to see Mia involved in this. It's really opened my eyes as to how important these animals are, and how human impact is affecting them.”

Student holding a chick as Hiltrun prepares to implant the tag

The next step for the team is to install more nest boxes this winter, along with tagging more penguins, planting more native trees, and trimming back any overgrown areas.

They also plan to put mini antennae in the entrance of each nest box, to get a clearer idea of which individuals are using the nest boxes and how often they visit their nests during their breeding season.

“I've really enjoyed getting to know where the penguins live and how they live,” says Libby, 13, from St Hilda’s Collegiate School. “It's amazing that there are so many penguins right here in our backyard, which makes it surprising just how many locals don’t know about them.”

Checking the nest boxes

About the project

Blue Penguins Pukekura logoPukekura Blue Penguins: Mātauranga & Mathematics is run by the Pukekura Trust, with support from the Otago Participatory Science Platform, in partnership with: the Royal Albatross Centre, Otago Peninsula Biodiversity Group, Department of Conservation, NZ Marine Studies Centre, University of Otago, Otago Polytechnic, Oamaru Blue Penguins and Phillip Island Nature Park.

Scientists and locals collaborating around a table

Participatory Science Platform

The Participatory Science Platform supports collaborative projects that bring together communities and scientists or technologists on research investigating a locally-important question or problem.

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