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Source: Massey University

Professor John Cockrem with one of the many samples of plastic waste he has collected from Little Penguin nesting colonies around Aotearoa.

The tatty five dollar note and plastic coffee cup lid Professor John Cockrem carries in a sealed plastic bag are not beachcomber’s treasure. They are to show people an example of what he finds in the nests of the Little Penguin colonies he studies.

The items are a symbol of his concern at the plight of the iconic species in the face of climate change impacts on its feeding, nesting and breeding habits, and the proliferation of plastic waste that ends up in nests. The five dollar note was found in a nestbox where a penguin was incubating two eggs. Professor Cockrem nicknamed the bird his ‘$5 penguin. 

A Professor of Comparative Endocrinology in the School of Veterinary Science who has worked with “everything from goldfish to humans”, he specialises in penguin conservation and has been studying Aotearoa’s Little Penguin (kororā) and other species of penguin for decades. 

Over the summer he has been visiting Mana Island – a predator-free scientific reserve off the coast of Porirua, Wellington – to survey the penguin colonies and check on their health. His photographic collection documents the proliferation of plastic washed up onshore. 

Professor John Cockrem with the five dollar note he found in a Mana Island penguin’s nest box.

Penguins entangled in plastic waste 

Penguins take bits of waste plastic they find washed up on the shore and use them in constructing nests. The danger of this, he says, is that “plastic straps and cord in nests bring risks of penguin adults or chicks becoming tangled in the plastic.”

The birds may mistake plastic for shells or for nesting material. He urges the public not leave plastic and other waste when out in nature. “The presence of plastic in penguin nests on an offshore island shows the importance of reducing the use of disposable plastic.”

His research also involves tracking the penguins and he’s discovered many are swimming much further in search of food. This results in abandoned nests and more chick deaths because parents can’t get enough food for their young. Professor Cockrem suspects this may be linked to warmer sea temperatures, which can affect the food chain and the availability of food sources.

The health of the Little Penguin populations reflect the overall health of the marine environment, he adds.  

Professor Cockrem’s work to establish and study penguin colonies on Mana Island, Napier Port and around New Zealand is sponsored by Napier Port. 

Read more about Little Penguins at the Department of Conservation.

The health of the Little Penguin (kororā) is a touchstone for the health of our marine environment, says Professor Cockrem.


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