Now I Know: How an Oddball Saved an Island of Little Penguins

Hope you had a great Thanksgiving weekend! This is an accidental re-run; I wrote it over the weekend and went to finish it for today, and I realized I already shared it a few years ago. The old version was better/complete so you're getting that one. I'll be back with something new (I hope!) tomorrow. Thanks! -- Dan

How an Oddball Saved an Island of Little Penguins

If you travel to the southern shores of Australia and go to the city of Warrnambool, look toward the water. You’ll see a handful of tiny islands which, by and large, are uninhabited by people. One of them is Middle Island (here’s a map), a 0.02 km2 piece of dry, rocky landscape jutting out from the sea. It’s not all that hard to access — as the image below suggests, you can probably walk there from the beach, at least during low tide.

Which is where the problems begin.

As recently as 2001, Middle Island was home to about 600 or so “little penguins,” which is in quotation marks because that’s what they’re called. Little penguins, as their name suggests, are tiny — they’re only about a foot tall even in extreme cases — and yes, that makes them the smallest of all penguin species. They’re also a blue-ish hue, but that has nothing to do with their name. (Here’s a picture of one at the Melbourne Zoo.) 

But in 2005, the population of Middle Island little penguins fell dramatically to no more than two dozen adults. As the BBC explained, Middle Island “is separated from the mainland by a stretch of water measuring no more than 20 or 30m. At low tide, and when sand builds up in the narrow channel, foxes can cross from the mainland barely getting their paws wet.” And foxes attack penguins.

The solution? These guys — Maremma sheepdogs.

In 2005, Allan “Swampy” Marsh, a local chicken farmer, realized that he had a potential solution in his own employ. Marsh, per the New York Times, suggested that the government “deploy a particularly territorial breed of sheepdog to scare the foxes away,” a strategy he had been using to protect his own flock of birds. What worked for chickens, he surmised, would also work for penguins — it was the predator, not the prey, that mattered. The territorial sheepdogs he had been using on his farm would likely work just as well on Middle Island.

While it took a while for the local authorities to come around to Marsh’s plan, they ultimately did. In 2006, a Maremma sheepdog named Oddball became the first of his kind to patrol Middle Island, spending two weeks keeping the foxes at bay. The efforts worked, and over the next decade, many more Maremma sheepdogs patrolled the island. By 2016, the penguin population there rebounded to nearly 200.

The plan hit a bump in 2017 when bad weather prevented the sheepdogs from returning to the island; foxes killed a third of the penguin population that year. But over the last two years, the efforts have rebounded — the weather has improved, and new dogs (like Mezzo, pictured above) are being trained to keep the foxes away

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Bonus fact: The penguin logo of Linux is most likely inspired by a little penguin (as in the species; again, this isn’t a reference to the penguin’s size). The creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds, was bitten by a small penguin when on vacation in Australia; the peck didn’t cause any lasting damage but rather made Torvalds like the animals more, and led to him adopting a penguin as the mascot.

From the Archives: Penguins of Mine: How land mines help the penguin population thrive.
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