The Adelie penguin exists only in Antarctica with the bulk of the population believed to live in the Ross Sea. Tests have shown there are two separate genetic variants or clades that make up the Adelie penguin population. Cawthron Institute senior scientist Jonathan Banks has been studying mating behaviours in these penguin populations and he is also trying to determine if one of the clades lives exclusively in the Ross Sea. If this was the case the Ross Sea clade of the Adelie penguin would be monitored and protected by the New Zealand government, affording it greater conservation protection.
Dr Banks is setting out to determine whether the two penguin clades are interbreeding or if they separate. If interbreeding is occurring the clades will merge to maintain a single genetic population. To undertake this study Jonathan conducts behavioural observations to identify mated pairs of penguins. He then takes a feather sample from each animal which is tested to determine which clade each bird belongs to. All Adelie penguins look identical so the only way to tell which clade a bird belongs to is to test it using PCR.
Current testing involves Jonathan taking a feather from the subject bird; the feather samples are flown, via Scott Base, to Christchurch, New Zealand, where they are tested in a central laboratory. The results are then flown back to the Ross Sea via Scott Base. This takes a total of seven hours flight time (dependent on the Antarctic weather) plus additional time to run the test. This testing process therefore ends up being a considerable drain on resources which puts a strain on the research project. Utilizing mobile molecular testing would ensure cost efficiency for the project.
Once Jonathan has the results he must return to find the bird’s mate and repeat the testing process as only one bird is present on land at a time. They take turns incubating eggs while the other leaves to feed. With the time taken to test the sample, the small window of opportunity can be lost if the mating season finishes, which then means waiting a year for the mate to return. Adelie penguins have a short breeding cycle in the warmer months of the year so the faster results can be obtained, the greater chance of building a complete genetic picture.
Although the penguins exist in good numbers currently, global warming threatens their habitat. Identifying a clade that belongs exclusively in New Zealand territory would enable conservationists to lodge a formal case to the government for the Adelie penguins to become a protected national species. Once protected, Department of Conservation staff would be able to monitor and take measures to protect the species from natural threats as well as other animals and human activity. This creates a safer environment and allows the species to grow and evolve further over generations to come. It would also establish a model of mobile molecular testing that other countries and territories could use in their conservation efforts protecting other wildlife.
Having the ability to test the birds on the ground in near real-time would help increase the number of pairs tested, creating a better population sample for Dr Banks to work with. Knowing whether or not this clade exists solely in New Zealand territory could greatly influence the conservation efforts placed around the species.
Ubiquitome is running a grants program for research groups who would benefit from a mobile qPCR device. Jonathan Banks has been chosen as one of the finalists. To find out more about the program and view the other finalists, visit the website here.