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Rare white penguin on Macquarie Island hopes birds of a different feather still flock together

ABC News logo ABC News 17/07/2019
This pale king penguin spotted on Macquarie Island has plenty of picture appeal, but there's some very real consequences to standing out from the crowd. © ABC News This pale king penguin spotted on Macquarie Island has plenty of picture appeal, but there's some very real consequences to standing out from the crowd.

A pale king penguin spotted on Macquarie Island might have plenty of picture appeal, but there's some very real consequences to standing out from the crowd.

"One thing is certain — something has gone wrong in its development," said Barbara Wienecke, a senior scientist with the Australian Antarctic Division.

"It's not an albino, because it still has a little bit of colour in the plumage."

Colour aberrations in penguins were rare, Dr Wienecke said, which made them hard to study.

She said the young bird had dark eyes and a black beak and feet, yet would still be more at risk of being killed by a predator.

"Often the light-coloured birds, because they are so different to everybody else, fall victim to predators more easily."

'Altered' pigment process

This pale king penguin spotted on Macquarie Island has plenty of picture appeal, but there's some very real consequences to standing out from the crowd. © ABC News Images This pale king penguin spotted on Macquarie Island has plenty of picture appeal, but there's some very real consequences to standing out from the crowd.

Chicks start off brown but later turn black; Dr Wienecke said penguins' black colour was due to two types of melanin.

An altered pigment process was likely the cause of the white penguin's condition, she said.

"In all likelihood it will retain a pale colour, and it will be interesting to see whether its belly turns white."

Expeditioners will keep an eye on the chick to see if it makes it through winter.

Brutal history

King penguins were hunted for their oil during the 19th century — they were usually clubbed to death and boiled — before Douglas Mawson ended the practice.

"It's a horrendous history," Dr Wienecke said.

"We don't actually know how many penguins there were, the old records weren't accurate.

"The good thing is Mawson stopped it and the population regenerated."

The Sandy Bay colony was established in the 1960s when a handful of birds returned to Macquarie Island, which now has thousands of penguins.

"It's extraordinary that Macquarie Island has yet again become a haven for the king penguin," Dr Wienecke said.

King penguins are found on other subantarctic islands, some thousands of kilometres away from Macquarie Island.

It is the second largest species of penguin and a close relative of the emperor penguin.

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