Dozens of beheaded penguins wash up on beach, so who

Scientists are mystified as dozens of beheaded penguins wash up on Australian beaches

  • Around 20 penguin bodies have washed ashore on beaches in April alone
  • Scientists are studying the animals’ remains to find out what is the cause 
  • Unfortunately, these are not the only bizarre penguin deaths in recent times 

By Padraig Collins For Daily Mail Australia

Published: | Updated:

Scientists are mystified as to why dozens of headless penguins have been washing up on Australian beaches, leading to an investigation into who, or what, is behind the gruesome deaths. 

Around 20 penguin bodies washed ashore on beaches in South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula in April alone.

This is more than the total number of penguin deaths in the area in the whole of 2021. 

Headless penguins have been washing up on shore around Fleurieu Peninsula (pictured) in South Australia

In South Australia, Stephen Hedges is collecting the dead animals so they can be studied by scientists to find out how or why the heads are being removed. 

The Flinders University volunteer said he and others are finding both the penguin bodies and the severed heads. 

Direct human intervention has been ruled out as a cause as the deaths are happening a sea.

But Mr Hedges said fishing boat propellers could be causing the deaths, based on the large number of vessels in the area.

‘We normally have one or two per month washing up on the beaches but already (in April) I have collected between 15 and 20, and sometimes three in one day,’ he told the Advertiser.

Mr Hedges the evidence so far is pointing to a ‘fairly clean chop’ on the penguin’s heads. 

‘But looking at an animal and thinking “that is a very clean chop” is not the same as scientists determining a cause,’ he said. 

Life of Australia’s penguins

Australia’s mainland-dwelling little penguins face many threats, from introduced predators to humans inadvertently trampling burrows. 

Even the remote-dwelling penguins of the Southern Ocean aren’t immune to human impact. 

At sea, they may struggle to find food, facing competition with industrial fishing and changes in abundance and distribution of their prey due to climate change. 

Many penguin breeding sites are protected, and a number of marine protected areas are proposed for East Antarctica to help our penguin pals. 

Source: Australian Geographic 

In an normal year, between 10 and 20 of the flightless birds wash up dead onshore in the area, but with that many just in April, scientists are concerned.  

Mr Hedges said a recent tuna fishing competition off Encounter Bay could have attracted penguins around boats.

Tourism may also be a factor in the killing of the penguins, with the numbers increasing around the Easter and Anzac weekends when there were a lot of visitors to the area.  

He said a lot of the tourists were walking along the beaches with their dogs, which may be related to what happened. Fox predation could also be a factor.

Another theory is that the decapitations could be caused by waves, currents and climatic conditions, but the number of deaths seems too large for that to be the sole cause. 

Mr Hedges said it would take two or three weeks for scientists to find a definitive cause.

Though the headless bodies being found in South Australia seems to be a unique event, penguins have recently fallen to another bizarre mass death. 

Last September a swarm of bees killed 63 endangered African penguins on a South African beach.

The protected birds were found dead in Simon’s Town, near Cape Town and taken for post-mortems.

‘After tests, we found bee stings around the penguins’ eyes,’ David Roberts, a clinical veterinarian, said at the time.

Pictured is a blue penguin at Victor Habor in South Australia. Penguins in the area have been washing ashore after being beheaded

The area is a national park and Cape honeybees are part of the ecosystem.

‘The penguins … must not die just like that as they are already in danger of extinction. They are a protected species,’ said Mr Roberts, who works with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.

South African National Parks said there were no external physical injuries found on any of the birds.

The postmortems showed all the penguins had multiple bee stings.

Scientists are mystified as to why penguins have been washing ashore dead and headless in South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula (pictured)