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Researchers Spot Rare Piebald Penguin Chick

Feb 01, 2013 05:55 AM EST

Researchers from University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Parks Australia have spotted a rare piebald penguin chick at the little penguin breeding colony at Jervis Bay on the NSW South Coast.

Little penguins, also known as fairy penguins, are the world's smallest penguins. They can grow up to an average of 13 inches in height and weigh about 3 pounds. The penguins can be numerously found in both Australia and New Zealand.

They usually have a white belly and dark blue back that allows them to camouflage themselves from predatory eagles and their fish prey. Surprisingly, UNSW and Parks Australia researchers have spotted a rare little penguin that has an unusual pigmentation, while carrying out research work along the NSW coast. The study is part of a project to understand the strengths and weaknesses of about nine penguin colonies.  

"Little penguin chicks leave the safety of their burrows at night to explore their surroundings. We observed this chick, which still had some down feathers remaining around its neck, retreat to its burrow, where we could also spot it during the day. The following night, we encountered the same penguin again in nearly the same spot," UNSW student Sandra Vogel said in a statement.

The penguin's unique appearance is due to a genetic defect known as piebald leucism. Piebald leucism is different from albinism, which is a genetic mutation that prevents production of melanin in the body. But leucism prevents melanin from being deposited normally on feathers.

The little penguin chick has normal eye color and feather pigmentation on the lower back, with only spots of blue feathers on its upper back. This condition might reduce the chances for survival of the penguin, as its camouflage is compromised, said the researchers.

They believe that blood samples of the penguin will reveal more about the condition.

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