Wildlife overpasses save the lives of hundreds of animals—such as deer, elk and pronghorn—every year. But if an overpass isn’t available and you’re a creature that stands just about a foot tall and weighs less than three pounds, what’s the safest way to cross a busy road?
Perhaps to go under it.
That’s what little blue penguins that live in the tiny town of Oamaru, New Zealand, do. They use a “penguin tunnel”—an 80-foot underpass—created with the help of some human friends.
Oamaru is one of the few places in New Zealand where you can see little blue penguins, the smallest penguins in the world, come ashore. They arrive in the evening after a day of fishing and typically go back out to sea before it gets light in the morning. The birds faithfully return to the same spot every night to guard their nests against other birds that might steal them, to reunite with their mates, and to breed, lay eggs and protect their chicks. Once the breeding season is over, they shed all of their feathers in what’s called a “catastrophic molt.” New feathers grow underneath the old ones, pushing the previous ones out. During the molt, the birds must remain on land.
To protect the penguins while they’re on solid terrain, residents of Oamaru placed nesting boxes in a protected area and secured the “neighborhood” against introduced mammalian predators. The problem was that the penguins needed to cross a traffic-heavy street to get from the harbor to their prefab colony. So, marine biologist Philippa Agnew, a researcher at Oamaru’s Blue Penguin Colony, came up with the idea for a tunnel under the road. The Oamaru town council, the local tourism body and civil works companies all pitched in to ensure that the penguin tunnel became a reality; building it involved moving power and water supply lines 80 feet so that the underpass would follow the penguins’ preferred spot for crossing the road while going from the ocean to their nests and back again. Now, every night, about 20 penguins use the culvert to avoid the cars above.
Watch the first video below, titled Blue Penguin Underpass Oamaru, which shows the little blue penguins using their underpass—the first penguin tunnel in New Zealand. In the following video, produced by Richard Sidey and titled Enderby Island, New Zealand, take a look at another species of penguin in New Zealand, the yellow-eyed penguin. These birds have to navigate a route past sea lions and brown skuas before entering the sanctuary of an ancient forest full of southern rata, an endemic tree.
Whether traversing above ground or below, the color-coded penguins of New Zealand walk unique and unusual paths.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,