Middle Island, Warrnambool, is home to the smallest penguin species in the world, The Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor). Standing at just 30-35cm tall and weighing around 1kg, Little Penguins are impressive in the water. Their scientific name, Eudyptula minor, roughly translates to ‘good little diver’ with the birds capable of swimming at an impressive speed and diving down to depths of 50m.
Little Penguins spend most of their time in the ocean, but come ashore on Middle Island to moult, breed and to rest. When Little Penguins are approaching land, they surf in and project themselves up onto land in a small torpedo-like action. Once on land, they waddle from side to side to their burrow, usually following the same path each time. On Middle Island, the Little Penguins have created worn paths into the soft sandstone to their burrows. Little Penguins breed from about three years of age, digging nest burrows or using artificial nest boxes to raise their young from approximately October to March.
History of the Middle Island Penguins
Little Penguins once bred in many places along the southern Australian coastline, and were an important food source for the Indigenous population. Early European settlers and American sealers and whalers also used Little Penguins as a food source in the early 1800s. These settlers also introduced large numbers of rat, dogs, cats and foxes, with many becoming wild and preying on Little Penguins as well as other native fauna.
In 1855, Warrnambool’s first fully manned lighthouse station was built on Middle Island, with lighthouse keeper’s records mentioning the birdlife being annoying. The lighthouse, and lighthouse keeper’s cottage have since been removed and are now located at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum and Village.
A study by Deakin University in the 1999-2000 Little Penguin breeding season found 292 burrows on Middle Island, with 502 penguins coming to shore during a one-hour period in January 2000. At the same time, humans walking around the island were found to be negatively impacting penguin breeding by trampling their burrows, with concerns also raised over the threat posed by foxes and dogs.
By 2005 there were less than 10 penguins on Middle Island, as foxes were crossing to the island and killing the penguins.
A local chicken farmer, Swampy Marsh, suggested Maremma guardian dogs could be used to protect the Little Penguins. Swampy had successfully used Maremma dogs on his farm to help protect his free-range chickens from foxes.
Visit the Maremma Dogs page to learn about how Maremma dogs are used to protect the Little Penguins on Middle Island.
- Middle Island project Report 2021-2022
- Middle Island project Report 2020-2021
- Middle Island project Report 2019-2020
- Middle Island project Report 2018-2019
- Middle Island project Report 2017-2018
- Middle Island project Report 2016-2017
- Middle Island project Report 2015-2016
- Middle Island project Report 2014-2015
- Little Penguin Fact Sheet