The iconic yellow-eyed penguin could disappear from Otago Peninsula within the next half-century unless there is urgent action, a new study has warned.
Researchers' prediction models have concluded that the penguins' breeding success will continue to decline to extinction by 2060, with rising ocean temperatures being a factor.
The study, published in the journal PeerJ, also points to where conservation efforts could be most effective in building the penguins' resilience against climate change.
Lead author Dr Thomas Mattern, from Otago University, says his team's predictions are conservative estimates.
They don't include additional adult die-off events, such as in 2013 when more than 60 penguins died.
If the recent poor breeding years from 2013 onwards are included in the simulation, Dr Mattern says, things get progressively worse and the birds could be locally extinct in the next 25 years.
He says the yellow-eyed penguin features on the $5 note and on welcome billboards at New Zealand airports.
"Yet despite being celebrated in this way, the species has been slowly slipping towards local extinction," he said.
Increasing sea surface temperatures in part explain the negative trend in penguin numbers.
However, Dr Mattern said there was a lack of data to examine the extent of human impacts, including fisheries interaction, introduced predators and human disturbance.
"Considering that climate change explains only around a third of the variation in penguin numbers, clearly those other factors play a significant role," he said.
"Unlike climate change, these factors could be managed on a regional scale."
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