Validating accelerometry-derived proxies of energy expenditure using the doubly-labelled water method in the smallest penguin species

G J Sutton* (Corresponding Author), J A Botha, J R Speakman, J P Y Arnould

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
5 Downloads (Pure)


Understanding energy use is central to understanding an animal's physiological and behavioural ecology. However, directly measuring energy expenditure in free-ranging animals is inherently difficult. The doubly-labelled water (DLW) method is widely used to investigate energy expenditure in a range of taxa. Although reliable, DLW data collection and analysis is both financially costly and time consuming. Dynamic body acceleration (e.g. VeDBA) calculated from animal-borne accelerometers has been used to determine behavioural patterns, and is increasingly being used as a proxy for energy expenditure. Still its performance as a proxy for energy expenditure in free-ranging animals is not well established and requires validation against established methods. In the present study, the relationship between VeDBA and the at-sea metabolic rate calculated from DLW was investigated in little penguins (Eudyptula minor) using three approaches. Both in a simple correlation and activity-specific approaches were shown to be good predictors of at-sea metabolic rate. The third approach using activity-specific energy expenditure values obtained from literature did not accurately calculate the energy expended by individuals. However, all three approaches were significantly strengthened by the addition of mean horizontal travel speed. These results provide validation for the use of accelerometry as a proxy for energy expenditure and show how energy expenditure may be influenced by both individual behaviour and environmental conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberbio055475
Number of pages10
JournalOpen Biology
Issue number4
Early online date15 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

We are grateful to Dr Catherine Hambly and Peter Thompson for technical assistance with the isotope analysis for the doubly labelled water measurements. We thank Parks Victoria (in particular, the rangers at Gabo Island and Port Campbell Offices) and Kevin Lotte for logistical support.

This project was funded by the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment – Equity Trustees Charitable Foundation and the Ecological Society of Australia and Deakin University internal funds.

Data Availability Statement

Data used in analyses can be accessed via fig share repository 10.6084/m9.figshare.12721355.


  • Accelerometer
  • Bio-logging
  • Doubly labelled water
  • Energy expenditure
  • Penguin
  • Time-energy budget


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