DNA Profiling For Penguins

macaroni penguin
Researchers will keep track of this fellow by the DNA in his feathers.

Researchers from The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the University of Sheffield have identified genetic markers that can be used to track the movement of penguins and ultimately determine whether Antarctica’s changing climate is driving them from their favoured breeding sites.

By collecting penguin feathers and extracting their DNA, scientists can now determine the relatedness between different birds within a colony, enabling them to follow the movement of individuals and populations.

The markers have already been used to make a population map of macaroni penguins around South Georgia and are now being expanded to all species of penguin on the Antarctic Peninsula.

ZSL’s own penguinologist, Tom Hart says: “Knowing how penguins are responding to climate change is vital to conservation efforts. If we understand how their populations are changing, we can do something about it, such as making sure that our protected areas are in the right place for penguins in 100 years time.”

Penguins are not only threatened by climate change, but are also under increasing pressure from direct competition with fisheries. Studying them is notoriously difficult because they live in very harsh environments and are hard to track. This new monitoring tool enables scientists to follow their populations and address the threats that they face.

Tom Hart is now launching a series of expeditions to collect samples and plot how penguins move around the Southern Ocean. Hart will be travelling to the Antarctic Peninsula with ZSL London Zoo penguin keeper Evelyn Guyett to collect feathers from as many penguin colonies as possible. This will allow them to understand how penguins are moving in relation to climate change.

Founded in 1826, the The Zoological Society of London is an international scientific, conservation, and educational charity. Its key role is the conservation of animals and their habitats. The Society runs ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, carries out scientific research at the Institute of Zoology and is actively involved in field conservation overseas.

With nearly 24,000 students from 124 countries, the University of Sheffield is one of the UK’s leading and largest universities. A member of the Russell Group, it has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes, prestigious awards that recognise outstanding contributions by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural, and social life. Sheffield also boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and many of its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence around the world. The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. Its partnership with Leeds and York Universities in the White Rose Consortium has a combined research power greater than that of either Oxford or Cambridge.

The UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Biomolecular Analysis Facility (NBAF) provides support nationally to environmental researchers in the application of molecular genetics, metabolomics, and bioinformatics to the study of natural populations of animals, plants, and microbes. NBAF was founded in 1998 at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield and has since expanded to include laboratories in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Liverpool, and Oxford. The Sheffield laboratory is led by Professor Terry Burke and particularly supports the use of DNA profiling.