Perth Zoo’s Senior Australian Fauna Keeper, Nicole Longhi has taken on the role of ‘mum’ to the young penguin who was failing to thrive after hatching in November.
This has involved caring for the Little Penguin round the clock, taking the chick home each evening in a temperature controlled brooding box and making special fish smoothies to provide all the nutrients the youngster required.
“Hand raising any animal is a huge under taking, it’s a 24/7 job but after almost four weeks in care it’s tipping the scales past 500 grams and is healthy and robust,” said Nicole.
“This Little Penguin has had a very interesting start to life, I am actually its second foster parent, although its first human one!”
To help arrest the decline of wild Little Penguin populations and maximise the amount of chicks hatched each year, this year the Department of Parks and Wildlife carefully transferred eggs from Penguin Island to the Zoo. The eggs were placed with Zoo penguins that were known to successfully hatch and rear their young.
“Two eggs from different Penguin Island nests were incubated by our pair Prince and Sandy,” said Nicole. “One chick hit all the development milestones, but a couple of days after hatching the other one needed some extra TLC and that’s when I stepped in to become the carer,” said Nicole.
The collaboration between Parks and Wildlife and Perth Zoo is important to maintain a genetically diverse insurance population of Western Australian Little Penguins which are distinct from penguins found outside of WA.
“Although not a separate subspecies, west coast Little Penguins have genetic differences,” said Nicole. “They are bigger than their east coast cousins and even breed at a different time of the year.”
“Their different breeding season is thought to be a natural adaptation to deal with our exceptionally long hot summers, but it has certainly confused zoo keepers on the east coast when we have sent some of our penguins over there,” said Nicole.
“This wild egg and Perth Zoo penguin fostering program is really exciting. If numbers in the wild decline it may be the key to ensuring WA provenance birds have a safety-net for survival.”
Nationally, Little Penguins are suffering due to habitat loss, predation from animals such as dogs and the effects of marine debris.