Local News

Millenium Drought Linked to Little Penguin Decline


A strong link has been found between the major impacts of the Millennium Drought (2001-10) and the colony of Little Penguins on the South Coast who are perilously verged on the edge of survival.  

While the population has recently bounced back from 16 adults to 20 in the latest census, a number of factors have contributed to their decline from around 1,600 at the start of the century, including freshwater inflows affected by the 10-year drought.

Acording to a Flinders University study, the drying of the Murray Mouth affected the population’s main fish food source, with the Encounter Bay population also affected by human interference and other impacts of climate change.  

Flinders expert Dr Diane Colombelli-Négrel, who coordinates annual census counts of numbers on Granite Island in Encounter Bay,  said she's still seeing the impacts of the drought, more than a decade on.

“The fact that the Granite Island Little Penguin population still had not recovered in 2020 – after larger river outflows in 2012-13 and at the end of 2016 – suggests that the population may have reached some critical reduction in the number of breeding birds during the drought period,” researchers state in an article in Frontiers in Marine Science.

The study found a strong association between Little Penguin numbers, the river outflow and one of their main local food sources, southern garfish, and suggests that ocean warming and other factors – such as predation and low juvenile survival – could also have contributed.  

The coastal and estuarine environment at Victor Harbor’s Encounter Bay, the Lower Lakes and Coorong depends on regular outflows from the mouth of the River Murray, which regularly closes during periods of drought.  

Hear Dr Diane Colombelli-Négrel talk more about her research with Jennie Lenman via the play window below:

Photo of Little Penguin, supplied Flinders University