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Little Penguin Disease Risk Assessment

The Penguin Foundation is proud to provide funding for expert teams who are closely monitoring little penguin populations to ensure early detection of diseases for effective management and prevention of significant population declines. 

Anthropogenic impacts on our environment, such as climate change, exploitation of natural resources and environmental pollution, increasingly have significant repercussions for wildlife populations. These include impacts on general health, by affecting immune responses and reproductive success, but also the emergence of infectious and non-infectious diseases across all ecosystems. It is, therefore, imperative that we adopt targeted, adaptive conservation management strategies that allow us to protect and conserve our native species, based on a solid understanding of current, but also potential future, threats to their health. Penguins are one of the most endangered groups of seabirds in the world with 60% of species being classified as ‘threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Penguins are mostly social birds that often breed in large colonies which comes with a number of advantages and disadvantages. Among the disadvantages of colonial living is that it may enhance the spread of infectious diseases such as avian malaria, avian flu, avian pox and avian cholera.

The Little Penguin Disease Risk Assessment (DRA) workshop took place on 30 November, involving 34 top Australian and international experts in penguin disease, parasitology, biology, and ecology. Prior to the workshop, a comprehensive 90-page document was distributed, summarising existing literature, identifying potential hazards to little penguins, and outlining the DRA structure and requirements. The contributions from the experts were collected during the workshop, and a first draft was produced for feedback. This collaborative effort resulted in the construction of the risk matrix ranking all existing and potential hazards as high, medium, and low in terms of the risks they present to little penguin populations, resident wildlife, people, and domestic animals on Phillip Island (Millowl).

The main output from the draft was identifying highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) as a very high risk for all the above categories. Avian cholera and penguin diphtheria, along with several fungal and protozoan parasites, also present important potential risks to the penguin population on the Island. This highlights the need for close monitoring of the little penguin population to ensure early detection of diseases for effective management and prevention of significant population declines. 

The first draft of the DRA has already identified a critical need for early detection of the disease in the little penguin population, which necessitates engaging experts in wildlife health for disease monitoring and prevention and, ultimately, reduction of the threats to the overall penguin population. The recommendations, such as passive and active surveyance of the disease in the little penguins, is highly advised by global experts to be incorporated into the management strategies and potential future research and surveillance.

An initial disease risk analysis for little penguins at Phillip Island was commissioned in 2022 and conducted through Zoos Victoria. This desktop, literature-based review provides an excellent basis, but was restricted to consideration of four infectious diseases: avian malaria, avian cholera, avian influenza and avian poxvirus. It did not include wider expert consultation, non-infectious diseases or provide specific management recommendations. Phillip Island Nature Parks conservation team members will continue to work in conjunction with experts at the University of Melbourne (UoM) and Zoos Victoria. Funding will be used by the University of Melbourne, Melbourne Veterinary School, to employ a research fellow to conduct the DRA review, including consultation with relevant experts. The project will be supervised through Dr Jasmin Hufschmid and Professor Lee Skerratt from the One Health Research Group at the Melbourne Veterinary School. Both have extensive expertise in wildlife population health, including disease risk analysis. This project will provide essential information for the management of little penguins at Phillip Island Nature Parks, including passive and active disease surveillance and prevention and identification of specific knowledge gaps.

At completion of the project, Phillip Island Nature Parks anticipates being able to instigate specific and targeted management actions to address knowledge gaps around disease risk for little penguins; conduct health surveillance which will facilitate early and effective responses to disease threats to the penguin colony; and ultimately, work towards establishing management practices, including biosecurity, that reduce the likelihood of disease incursions and spread, minimise the impacts of disease threats and optimise the health of little penguins more generally.

Photo credit: D.Parer & E.Parer-Cook

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