“Eventually they become more dehydrated, very disorientated, come out of their burrows and suffer organ failure. And that’s what happened last year”.
Now, in collaboration with La Trobe University, the park is testing 50 artificial burrows, in five different designs, to better protect penguins during extreme hot weather, which is more likely because of climate change. These include burrows with pitched roofs, small chimneys and elevated ceilings.
Researchers have observed that if these artificial burrows are buried they remain a few degrees cooler on hot days. They may also trial placing burrows in southern sites that are cooler.
Penguins are particularly vulnerable to hot weather over 28 degrees during their moulting season between February and April, when they are confined to their burrows for up to three weeks.
Unlike most birds, penguins undergo a “catastrophic moult”, where they eat enough to double their body weight then take to their burrows to lose and regrow all of their plumage. Moulting is an energy-intensive (read: hot) process because new feathers grow rapidly and push old feathers out of their skin.
When Dr Dann first began studying penguins in 1980, scientists already knew climate change affected their breeding cycles but no-one anticipated humans would change the climate so rapidly, he says.
And while these new boxes might buy the penguins some time, it’s only a temporary measure.
“We don’t really want to have to have every penguin living in an artificial box to survive,” Dr Dann says.
“I see it as buying us time as we get the more central problems of climate change and what we’re doing to the earth under control.
“If the temperatures keep increasing, other parts of the ecosystem are going to break down much more fundamentally.”
Like the rest of Australia, climate change is predicted to make Phillip Island hotter and drier, so the park is also investigating which vegetation offers the best shade and is the least fire-prone.
There are about 18,000 burrows on the island’s Summerland Peninsula, including more than 1000 artificial burrows. This number could be expanded if tests determine they provide better insulation and protection during warmer months.
Miki Perkins is a senior journalist and Environment Reporter at The Age.