- Snappy feet: Little penguins may not look like speed machines on land, but they have made a fine art of being fast and furious when feeding at sea. Photo: Reuters
The kill takes no more than a few seconds. When little penguins are about to snaffle a fish they speed up on their prey before stopping mid-water where, with head down and tail up, they swallow their catch whole.

Using tracking devices that measure changes in speed - the same technology is in smart phones - scientists can for the first time recognise this distinctive pattern of movements and know when a penguin is feeding as it swims in the ocean. From this, they can develop maps of where little penguins, and other species such as seals and sea birds, travel to find food and the environmental conditions they encounter along the way. ''The problem with studying marine animals is that most of the time when they're at sea, you can't see or observe them,'' said Gemma Carroll, who is researching little penguins, also known as fairy penguins, as part of her PhD at Macquarie University. ''We use technology like GPS satellite trackers and accelerometers to open up a window into their movement and behaviour in the ocean.'' Ms Carroll's work is part of a larger study looking at marine predators, including fur seals and several species of shearwaters, gulls and terns, found on the south-east coast of Australia.

The project, funded by the Australian Research Council and run by marine biologist Rob Harcourt and research biologist David Slip from the Taronga Conservation Society, is timely given the region is a hot spot for climate change. Its sea surface temperature has risen faster than anywhere else in the world, Ms Carroll said. ''Studying marine predators like penguins gives us a great insight into the lives of these animals but it also tells us about the marine environment and how it changes over time,'' she said.

The marine biologist's study includes strapping accelerometers, which measure changes in speed and direction, to the backs of little penguins living in colonies on Montague Island and Bowen Island on the NSW south coast. ''Accelerometers give us lots of data about the penguins' movements out at sea but much more difficult is working out what this information is telling us,'' she said.

Placing the same devices on captive little penguins at Taronga Zoo, Ms Carroll could identify what data from the accelerometers was associated with specific behaviours. ''It's the same technology used in smartphones and gaming devices. When you turn your phone the image flips to match the orientation of the phone because the accelerometer is recording that change,'' she said.

The team plans to track little penguins in their ocean wanderings for another couple of seasons. ''Now when we look at the wild accelerometer data we can tell exactly where and when they've encountered and caught fish,'' said Ms Carroll.