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Boersma lab on sexing Galapagos penguins

Thursday, June 28, 2018 - 08:45

In a paper published April 5 in the journal Endangered Species Research, Caroline Cappello and Dee Boersma announced that, for a Galápagos penguin, beak size is nearly a perfect indicator of whether a bird is male or female. Armed with this knowledge, the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels could determine the sex of a bird quickly and accurately in the wild without taking a blood sample — speeding up field studies of this unusual and endangered seabird.

“For Galápagos penguins, we really wanted to understand if there was a simple ‘rule’ we could employ to determine sex — a sign that would be fast and reliable,” said lead author Caroline Cappello.

“We were hoping to find a physical trait to determine sex in Galápagos penguins that would be simple to measure in the field,” said Cappello. “By finding such a sex-specific trait, we could use that in our field studies on whether shifting climactic conditions affect male and female Galápagos penguins differently.”

Cappello combined the body-size measurements and DNA test results into a statistical analysis to search for physical characteristics that correlated with the sex of the bird. She found that males had slightly thicker beaks — measured from top to bottom — compared to females. Using beak size alone, Cappello could correctly determine the sex of more than 95 percent of their study penguins. This has been reported for several other penguin species, but Cappello and Boersma are the first to test it by genetic analysis for the Galápagos penguin.

This knowledge will help the UW team study Galápagos penguins in what Boersma has called a “predictably unpredictable” place. Straddling the equator, the Galápagos Islands are perfectly placed to take advantage of an upwelling of Pacific Ocean currents. This upwelling typically brings nutrients that support small-schooling fish to the islands for the penguins and other marine animals to feast upon, said Boersma, who has been studying Galápagos penguins for more than four decades.

But El Niño events can disrupt these currents and collapse the Galápagos food web, leading to starvation. This puts a strain on the penguin population, which numbers between 1,500 and 4,700 individuals. According to Boersma’s research, in particularly lean El Niño years, Galápagos penguins can even stop breeding altogether. Climate change is expected to increase the occurrence of El Niño conditions and extreme weather events.

Other preliminary studies have suggested that male Galápagos penguins are more likely to survive extreme environmental conditions compared to females. Scientists do not know why, and studies of sex-specific survival during El Niño years were hampered because researchers lacked easy ways to determine the sex of individual penguins — that is, until now.

“Now we can start to look at whether climate change will impact male and female Galápagos penguins differently, and what kind of strain this might put on their ability to survive as a species,” said Cappello.

Read the whole article at UW News.

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