The little penguin is the only species of penguin breeding in mainland Australia. The smallest of all penguins, they weigh 1.2 kg on average and stand up to 40 cm tall. Little penguins spend most of the day at sea feeding and come ashore coastal habitats at night.
They can sleep at sea too, snoozing away on the water surface. They travel around 30 km away from the colony during breeding but can travel over 1000 km when not breeding. Their population trend is generally stable, with human disturbance and climate variability usually driving local decreases in population size.
Today, Phillip Island in Victoria is home to the largest little penguin colony in the world. Phillip Island Nature Parks hosts the world-famous Penguin Parade. Visitors from all over the world travel to the island to see the little penguins. They watch from viewing platforms, boardwalks and untouched beaches as the penguins waddle home from the ocean to their burrows.
Like many other severely threatened colonies of little penguins, Phillip Island's penguins were once on the brink of ceasing to exist. In the 1980s, scientists found that land-based threats were having a major impact on the colony. These included habitat destruction from housing development, traffic, fire, pests and industrial fishing. At the time, it looked like these threats were set to wipe out the Penguin Parade by the late 1990s.
In response to these threats, the Penguin Protection Program was established. The Victorian Government began buying back land in the Summerland Estate located in the middle of the colony. Roads were closed, introduced predators like red foxes eliminated, and a housing estate removed.
Extensive conservation work since the 1980s has increased little penguin numbers. While there were 12,000 in the mid-1980s and declining, Phillip Island is now home to about 32,000 little penguins. Phillip Island is a unique example of how conservation objectives and visitor management can be achieved in parallel.
Research into little penguin threats continues today. Little penguins are vulnerable to attacks by foxes, shifts in diets and changes in ocean temperature. More severe storms, strengthening winds and increased coastal erosion under climate change also pose challenges. Little penguins have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of continued threats. Yet, they are becoming more vulnerable as their food web has become simpler and less flexible. This is making them more at risk from further changes in their marine system.
Understanding the health of little penguin colonies can also shine light on the health of the broader marine environment. The State of the Marine and Coastal Environment 2021 Report can help you learn more about the health of Victoria's little penguin colonies.