Loveland Living Planet Aquarium's penguins are the focus of the first-ever study to sequence Gentoo penguin DNA to determine the paternity of eight chicks, as published electronically in the scientific journal, Zoo Biology (DOI 10.1002/zoo.21432).
"This research could change the way aquariums and zoos nationwide care for penguins," said Loveland Living Planet Aquarium founder and CEO Brent Andersen. "We're excited to be the first organization to have this groundbreaking research take place."
Animal care professionals frequently use observational techniques to monitor penguin mating behavior. The objective of the study was to determine if these observations matched DNA results. The study, performed by Assistant Professor Eric Domyan, Ph. D. at Utah Valley University (UVU), along with his students Lauren Lee and Nathan Tirrell, concluded that behavioral observations were not always correct.
Based on observations, a penguin named Gossamer was thought to be the father of Poppy and Scamper, two chicks born at LLPA. DNA sequencing results showed a different story, as Roto is actually the father of these two birds. These findings indicate that while observations are helpful and generally correct, DNA provides hard evidence to prove relationships, allowing aquariums and zoos to ensure genetic diversity among penguins in their care.
"Genetic diversity is critical to maintain species viability over generations," said Domyan. "By having that viability, animals are more resistant to diseases and environmental changes."
Because this is the first time Gentoo penguin DNA sequencing was performed to determine paternity, UVU researchers had to sequence almost 200,000 locations in the penguin genome, identifying 38,000 differences that were used to determine the relationships between birds.
To conduct the study, UVU researchers collected blood samples from LLPA's 19 penguins as part of a routine veterinarian exam last year. Eleven of the penguins came to LLPA from Moody Gardens in Texas. Eight of the penguins were born at LLPA.