Researchers from ZSL and the University of Sheffield have identified genetic markers that can be used to track the movement of penguins and ultimately determine how Antarctica’s changing climate is affecting them. Any material an animal sheds contains its DNA, so we needn't capture animals and disturb colonies to gather vast amounts of information on how pengiun populations are doing.
Samples are taken from shed feathers picked up in colonies to be used in genetic analysis All biologists strive to make interventions as stress-free to the animals as possible. We have pioneered non-invasive sampling techniques using DNA extracted from material such as eggshells and feathers, to monitor penguin populations without disturbing them. . Non-invasive sampling means we don’t disturb the animals we are there to protect. Plus, a non-specialist can do this, so volunteers can help us to monitor many more sites than would be otherwise possible.
What can it tell us?
In Antarctica, one of the biggest emerging threats to wildlife is disease. With large-scale snow and ice coverage, Antarctica has very few pathogens, but this is likely to change as ice retreats. In South America and more recently in Antarctica, diseased know formerly from poultry have been found in penguins. We want to monitor these diseases and work out mitigation strategies.
By identifying who is who, where they are and their health, we can track how overall populations are faring We can then use DNA from these samples to determine the relatedness between different birds within a colony, allowing us to follow the movement of individuals and populations. This allows us to monitor how penguin populations are changing and the prevalence of diseases.
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.”