The White-flippered Penguin (Eudyptula albosignata) is one of the world's smallest penguin species.
The White-flippered Penguin has an overall blue-grey appearance, which is very similar to the Little Penguin (Blue Penguin). They are distinguished with broad white trailing and leading edges of the flipper. They typically grow to 30 cm tall and weighing 1.5 kg.
The White-flippered Penguin was previously classified as a subspecies of the Little Penguin (Blue Penguin), or thought to be just a colour morph of the Little Penguin (Blue Penguin). However, recent genetic analysis conducted by Dr Baker in USA (2006), looking at both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, has found the White-flippered Penguin distinct from the rest of the Little Penguins (E. minor) and treated it as a full species. Dr Baker stated in the petition prepared by the Center for Biological Diversity for US Department of the Interior, Fish & Wildlife Service that the two lineages diverged about 2.7 million years ago.
The White-flippered Penguin is endemic to Canterbury, New Zealand. They breed only on Banks Peninsula (2,200 pairs) and Motunau Island (1,800 pairs). It is considered to be the one and only indigenous creature unique to Canterbury, New Zealand.
White-flippered Penguins lay their eggs in a burrow lined with plant material, or in hollows under bushes or rocks, in dunes, or on vegetated slopes of coasts and islands.
They feed on small shoaling fish or squid, and less often on crustaceans.
The most recent estimate of the total population is only 4,000 pairs (1,800 on Motunau Island and 2,200 on Banks Peninsula). IUCN (The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) and Birdlife International classified White-flippered penguin as "Endangered", and D.O.C. (Department of Conservation, New Zealand) as "Acutely-Threatened".
The key land-based threats to White-flippered Penguins continue to be predation by introduced predators and habitat degradation by human activities. Ferrets, feral cats and stoats are the main predators. Also, domestic dogs could be a major threat.
At sea, White-flippered Penguins have been frequently caught in near-shore set nets, especially around Motunau Island. A large oil spill would be disastrous to this penguin, and the threat is high because the birds nest in areas near shipping lanes.
Before European settlement started around 1850 to Banks Peninsula, there were tens of thousands of White-flippered Penguins. They have disappeared from much of their range since then, and are in much reduced numbers where they have survived. Human settlement destroyed habitat outright and predators have overrun many of the remaining colonies.
In a recent study, the aggregate number of nests declined from 489 to 85 between 1981 and 2000: an overall loss of 83%. On Motunau Island where no human lives and without any predators the population has been stable.
Some farmers on Banks Peninsula have been privately taking actions to protect White-flippered penguins. At Harris Bay next to Boulder Bay, a colony has been re-established by Dr Chris Challies, using "chick transfer" technique from Motunau Island. Around the colony at Harris bay, a predator fence has been set to protect the area from the intrusion of predators.
The above mentioned conservation efforts have been privately funded and privately initiated. The Department of Conservation recognizes the necessity for more intense conservation activities, however, due to limited resources, there is no pro-active conservation actions being undertaken by the Department.
The predator fence around Harris Bay has been funded by the Christchurch City Council, initiated by its Park Rangers. Unfortunately the Christchurch City Council as a whole has not been proactive in the conservation of the White-flippered penguin, even though they are the only endemic birds of its region. Whereas some Councillors are supportive to the conservation activities of the White-flippered penguin, other Councillors and the Mayor have to date not shown positive support or initiative for the conservation programs; they apparently oppose the Boulder Bay project in order to protect private occupation of a few baches on the Boulder Bay foreshore which have been monopolizing the public land and whose legality is highly controversial.