Whose body is that? The case of the missing penguin head

Whose body is that? The case of the missing penguin head

A few years ago, our Vertebrate Curators Alan Tennyson and Colin Miskelly challenged Te Papa’s geneticist Lara Shepherd to identify a couple of penguin heads recovered from Antarctic toothfish stomachs. This year, Colin had another penguin puzzle for Lara to solve – what species was the headless penguin he found on a remote Rakiura | Stewart Island beach?

On a tramping trip to Rakiura | Stewart Island last December, Colin discovered a headless black and white penguin on Mason Bay beach. This was clearly not a New Zealand penguin – but what species was it?

A photo of a headless penguin lying on the sand
Headless penguin, Mason Bay, Rakiura | Stewart Island. Photo by Colin Miskelly

Based on the morphology of the penguin’s body Colin recognised that it was either an Adélie penguin or a Chinstrap penguin. But these two species are almost identical from the neck down and with the head missing it was impossible to identify the species in this way. Both species are only rare visitors to our waters with each only recorded a few times from New Zealand. To determine the species we needed to sequence the DNA from this penguin.

Lara was able to get DNA from the feathers of the headless penguin and a comparison with reference DNA sequences showed that this bird is an Adélie penguin. Adélie penguins are one of only two species of penguin to breed on the Antarctic continent – so Colin’s penguin was a long way from home!

A photo of a healthy penguin standing on snow looking off to its right.
Adélie penguin, Gould Bay, Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Photo by Colin Miskelly

This isn’t the first Adélie penguin to reach New Zealand. There are four other records of Adélie penguins in New Zealand with two of these occurring in the last year. It’s even possible that ‘Pingu’, the Adélie Penguin seen in November 2021 at Birdling’s Flat, is the same bird found by Colin.

In theory, it would be possible to use genetic techniques to determine if the Birdlings Flat and Mason Bay penguins were the same individual. Unfortunately, no blood or feather samples were kept of the Birdlings Flat bird at the time.

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