Little Penguins May Forage in Groups

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When little penguins hit the seas in search of food, it seems they hunt in groups, possibly even coordinating movements in their foraging forays.

That's the implication behind new research out of Australia's Deakin University, just published in the online journal PLOS ONE.

Lead researchers Maud Berlincourt and John Arnould studied little penguins from southeastern Australia's London Bridge breeding colony over the course of two breeding seasons. The site hosts about 70 active nests, and breeding adults there were tagged with GPS devices.

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The researchers' goal was to keep an eye on foraging tracks of the littlest penguins on the planet, and then categorize the associations of individual penguins within three broad groups: not associating with other penguins; associating when going to or from the colony; or associating at sea when traveling or diving, including synchronous diving, regardless of whether or not they had left the colony together.

They found that about 70% of the separate foraging trips occurred in association with other penguins; 46% showed diving while associating with other penguins; and close to 40% exhibited synchronous diving.

The numbers suggested to the researchers that little penguins indeed forage in groups and that their synchronous diving may mean they coordinate their movements in order to corral the schools of prey they're pursuing. In essence, they shop together when it's time to eat, perhaps literally concentrating the food for easier access.

Little penguins are found only in southern Australia, New Zealand, and the Chatham Islands. Also known by the moniker "blue penguin," they're only about 1 foot tall (unlike these long-extinct monster penguins). They hunt small fish and crustaceans, and have to dive a lot to reach this bounty. Perhaps they have figured out an easier way to hunt.