Blue penguins, only as tall as a 30cm ruler that every student will have in their tool kit, have been killed on coast roads since the roads were built through their nesting areas but some are now helping biology students in their studies.

When penguins have been found dead on West Coast roads, they will be recorded in a mortality database to inform conservation management, and then, if they are in good condition, they may be held in a Department of Conservation freezer for future study.

Sadly, the freezer at the Greymouth DOC office had accumulated around 20 mostly blue penguins but also a couple of Fiordland crested penguins and space was needed. That presented the opportunity for the West Coast Penguin Trust to work with John Paul II High School and parent and vet from West Coast Vets, Marjan Sprock, to run a dissection class.

West Coast Penguin Trust Education Ranger, Lucy Waller explained:

“Not only do senior biology students learn about a local native species, observing the anatomy and adaptations of penguins to their environment making science real and relevant, but they contribute to finding out more about these penguins, potentially confirming the cause of death and establishing whether any plastic has been ingested.”

With assistance from teachers and led by Marjan and Lucy, the students established what and where the vital organs were and recorded damage to organs and bones, amounts of fat and muscle and any stomach contents.

“In one case, they found an egg, a very sad example of the loss of a healthy breeding penguin clearly illustrating not only the loss of one but of future generations of penguins.  In most cases the penguins were emaciated – a surprising finding and something warranting further investigation.”

“In addition, these students have been asked to take part in an international penguin study through the New Zealand Penguin Initiative. Brazilian penguin scientist, Dr Ralph Vanstreels, is studying the epidemiology and taxonomy of nasal mites found in a variety of penguin species. In a follow up session, John Paul II students looked for and then analysed these tiny nasal mites, smaller than a pin head, to help this project, adding another useful and fascinating layer of learning.”

The penguin trust together with DOC ran dissection demonstrations for Westland High School and South Westland Area School last year and they heard that one of the WHS students was inspired and encouraged to go and study biology at university after the session.

The Trust was also able to organise a dissection class with Westland High School recently, with another parent and vet, Lynda Murphy.

“The distressing loss of these penguins has been turned into a valuable education opportunity for local biology students with the fantastic support of DOC and of John Paul II and WHS teachers and especially vets Marjan and Lynda. It was a privilege to work with them all.”

Photos by John Paul II student, Siobhan Ellis

Lucy Waller helps with dissection class
Vet Marjan Sprock leads penguin dissection
John Paul II students – penguin dissection class
John Paul II students 2 – penguin dissection class