UWE Bristol student pioneers new way to track endangered penguins

Media Relations Team, 08 October 2021

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UWE Bristol student Christa Emmett standing next to the Seal and Penguin Coasts exhibit at Bristol Zoo Gardens.
UWE Bristol student, Christa Emmett, standing next to the Seal and Penguin Coasts exhibit at Bristol Zoo Gardens.

A new method to track endangered penguins has been pioneered by a student at Bristol Zoological Society and the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol). Christa Emmett used DNA left behind by the birds in water to confirm their presence and help chart where they had been. She carried out her research at the Seal and Penguin Coasts exhibit at Bristol Zoo Gardens as part of her Master’s degree in Applied Sciences.

The study centred on the Zoo’s African penguins which, in the wild, are found only off the coast of South Africa and Namibia, and whose numbers are in serious decline. Christa said: “To our knowledge, this is the first eDNA technique applied to any species of seabird and for any penguin, though it has been used successfully for other marine animals such as dugongs.”

Christa’s research has highlighted that fishing, combined with environmental changes, has significantly reduced the penguins’ food stocks, like sardines and anchovies, or caused them to move further away. As a result, penguins have less to eat, which has led to a reduction of more than 60 per cent in their population between 2001 and 2009. They are now classified as Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List.

Christa said: “Juvenile and non-breeding African penguins are severely understudied. Current monitoring techniques rely on the deployment of satellite trackers, which are expensive and invasive.

“This technique could help us understand more about juvenile foraging ranges and dispersal, thus contributing to the conservation of this endangered species.”

Environmental DNA uses genetic material such as faeces, mucus, feathers and blood, left behind by the penguins in the water. Christa took water samples, extracted DNA and then targeted a gene specific to African penguins, using a process called PCR, to confirm their presence.

“This research has provided a useful starting point in the development of this method and is encouraging for the future use of eDNA in monitoring this endangered species in the wild,” said Christa. “With a greater understanding of the distribution of juvenile African penguins, targeted conservation management can be used to increase their survival rates, helping to improve breeding success and hopefully bolster future populations of African penguins.”

Christa said she would like to see the research continue in the wild, even if she were not able to do it herself. “Ideally I would like it to be the subject of a PhD, and I would like it to progress even if I am not the one to do it.”

The researcher was supervised by Dr Stephanie Sargeant from UWE Bristol and Dr Grainne McCabe from Bristol Zoological Society.

 Dr Sargeant, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Sciences at UWE Bristol, said: “As far as we know, this is the first time environmental DNA techniques have specifically targeted penguins. This technique could provide a step change in the way we track and monitor penguins or other marine birds, so that we can target conservation efforts to where they’re needed most.”

Dr McCabe, Head of Conservation and field science at Bristol Zoological Society, said: “Trialling this method with wild penguins first would have been quite challenging, so showing that it works in captivity first is really helpful.”

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