How the QBE Foundation is helping to protect penguins
- The Penguin Foundation works to protect Phillip Island’s natural environment and native wildlife, including the penguin population of around 35,000
- Through the local grant program, the QBE Foundation has awarded the Penguin Foundation a grant of $25,000 to support their work in the environment
- The grant will be used to combat the threat of extreme temperatures and fire risk brought about by climate change on the penguin population, including the development of new nest box designs.
The QBE Foundation is dedicated to building "strong, resilient and inclusive communities" by working with charity organisations who are making a positive impact. One way they do this is through the local grants program.
In 2021, the QBE Foundation local grants program supported 12 charities with grants of $25,000. Grants focused on three key areas of need that align with QBE’s approach to working in the community, with a key focus being climate action.
The Penguin Foundation was a recipient of one of these grants. As many natural areas around the world start to show the impacts of climate change, the Penguin Foundation works to protect Phillip Island’s natural environment and native wildlife – including penguins.
"We love that this grant not only raises awareness of the impacts of climate change on a beloved animal, but also has the potential to better understand how to deal with increased heat stress and fire risks all around the world – it’s a great project," says QBE Foundation Co-Chair, Jon Fox.
How the QBE Foundation local grant is helping to protect penguins
Lauren Tworkowski is a PhD Student in the Wildlife Conservation Biology and Thermal Ecology Lab from La Trobe University. The QBE Foundation local grant is supporting her project with the Penguin Foundation – vital research on how to save Little Penguins from the ongoing threats of climate change.
"It’s incredibly rewarding to work on this project," says Dr. Peter Dann, Research Director at the Phillip Island Nature Parks and Board member of the Penguin Foundation.
"Supporting young scientists like Lauren is so vital. Without the QBE Foundation, it would just be an idea. We have millions of those. But QBE has made this one tangible. And I think it will make a huge difference – it will get results quickly and we are so grateful. Together we can really do some good here."
Tworkowski’s research focuses on penguins in the ‘moult’ stage – when they are the most susceptible to heat stress. She hopes to be able to manage their environment to combat the effects of heat on the vulnerable birds.
"Moult in penguins is described as ‘catastrophic’ because, unlike other birds, their entire plumage is shed and replaced in a few short weeks," says Tworkowski. "Without adequate insulation and waterproofing to head back to sea, they are constrained to land in some of the hottest parts of the year. Little penguins are therefore hugely reliant on important habitat features such as structural vegetation and burrows for shelter. Moult is a really challenging time - feather synthesis alone uses up lots of energy, a commodity in short supply when penguins cannot forage for food. In order to survive moult, penguins can gain as much as double their fat mass in preparation. While this prevents starvation, fat is a very effective insulator which makes the penguins more susceptible to heat stress as they struggle to lose heat."
Already the team has seen the impact that unusually warm weather can have on penguins during moult stage. In March 2019 there was an unseasonable heat wave – five days in a row that were over 30 degrees with little relief overnight. Sadly, Phillip Island had the largest heat-related mortality event of adult Little Penguins during moult on record.
"One of the biggest potential threats to Little Penguins is climate change," says Tworkowski. "What we are trying to do is gain a better understanding of how Little Penguins are responding to extreme temperatures on land, so that we can look at ways to increase their resilience in the future. So far, this includes modified nest box designs so that we can keep the birds cooler in the short term, as well as planning how we will manage vegetation around them so that there’s more shade available in the long term."
The QBE Foundation local grant will fund 180 important data loggers that will monitor the temperatures and humidity that birds are experiencing in different habitats features. They will be set up in a grid to allow Tworkowski to create a heat map of the island to help researchers and wildlife managers plan for the future of these penguins – including where they need to focus revegetation efforts, where to install new nest boxes or what areas to avoid altogether.
About the Penguin Foundation
The Penguin Foundation was founded in 2004 to support the research and conservation of penguins on Phillip Island. As time went on, this research broadened into preserving other native flora and fauna – so that they could try to predict and manage threats to wildlife on the island.
"We have the biggest colony of Little Penguins in the world," says Dann. "We also have the biggest colony of Short-tailed Shearwaters and Australian Fur Seals in the world. So, we take that responsibility very seriously."
With a primary research team of eight led by Dann, results of the Penguin Foundation and the Phillip Island Nature Parks really speak for themselves. "The penguin population has actually increased enormously since the 1980s when we started addressing the threats to the penguins," says Dann.
"In conjunction with Zoos Victoria, we have played a pivotal role in saving a species from the brink of extinction in Victoria," he continues. "The Eastern Barred Bandicoot was restricted to captive populations in Victoria and was classified as extinct in the wild. The Foundation assisted with funding a fox removal program on Phillip Island which allowed bandicoots to be released there – and now the population is flourishing."
However what Dann is particularly proud of is their regular engagement with PhD and Masters students from universities around the world. This attracts innovative new ideas and considerable expertise.
"That’s where some of the most exciting work is being done," says Dann. "And we’re so happy that the QBE Foundation local grant has allowed us to make one of these brilliant new PhD ideas happen."
How the project can help beyond penguins
While Tworkowski absolutely loves working with what she describes as "incredibly sassy and charismatic little birds", what is also exciting is how her research can be used not just for other animals – but how it can inspire humans too.
"Just like we can design houses for penguins that reduce heat, we can - and do - for humans too," says Tworkowski. "I think we demonstrate that these simple things we are doing to protect the penguins can make a huge difference in the interim but are really part of a larger goal to buy us some much-needed time while we tackle the broader issues of climate change. It should give everyone inspiration to see that they can make a difference."
Dann agrees, "Just like penguins are susceptible to heat and fire, so are we. This project can help us look at how we deal with increased fire risk and increased temperatures by manipulating vegetation type and structure– using less fire-prone and more shading species, such as local native succulents that retard the spread of fires at ground level."
For the QBE Foundation, this project particularly appealed because of the incredible innovation potential. They are passionate about supporting research that will help future-proof communities and tackle climate change.
"The community will be the benefactor of this project," says Fox. "We’re so pleased to be supporting the Penguin Foundation who are working to improve the resilience and preparedness of wildlife and our communities as a whole."