Penguins are a distinctive group of flightless seabirds found exclusively in the southern hemisphere, occupying an extensive geographic range extending from the Galapagos Islands to the Antarctic continent. For most scientists, penguins are considered sentinels of the marine environment, providing insight into the health and productivity of our marine ecosystems. Unfortunately, over 55% of all penguin species are currently listed on the IUCN red list as being at risk of extinction. Climate change, over fishing, pollution, and disease are considered the major threats to their survival.
Within all higher organisms, lives a thriving ecosystem of microorganisms including, bacteria, viruses and fungi. These microorganisms are crucial for an animal’s health, nutrition and physiology, playing an important role in digestion, protection against harmful pathogens, secretion and synthesis of essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids. However, alterations of this community can have detrimental impacts on an animal’s health. So if penguins are sentinels for ocean health, then microbes could be considered as sentinels for penguin health.
It has been predicted that the incidence of infectious diseases amongst humans and wildlife populations will rapidly increase with a warming climate. However, our ability to diagnose disease in penguins in the wild is hampered by a lack of information not only about the aetiology and the disease itself, but also a lack of information on what is considered to be normal and what is actually pathogenic. Therefore, if we are to truly understand what organisms cause disease in penguins and how microbes affect penguin health and survival, then we need to know what organisms are naturally occurring and what factors influence their presence.
This work will further our knowledge on the basic biology of penguins and will provide vital baseline data on the composition of the penguin microbiome and the functional role that these microbes play in penguin health and disease. In addition, it will further our understanding and improve our ability to predict, measure and respond to the impact of environmental changes including climate change, prey depletion, introduction of non-native microbes and infectious disease on penguin health and physiology.
Meet the Study Species
Meet the Research Team
Dr Meagan Dewar (Deakin University)
Professor John Arnould (Deakin University)
Dr Tamsyn Crowley (Deakin University)
Dr Theo Allnutt (Deakin University)
Dr Phil Trathan (British Antarctic Survey)
How The Funds Will Be Used
If $10,000 is raised we will sequence the metagenome of 42 individual penguins from four species of penguin (king, gentoo, macaroni and little penguin) to examine if the penguins share a core microbiome or if each species of penguins have their own unique microbiome, and to start to understand the functional role that microbes play in penguin health and physiology. This funding will cover the cost of sample preparation and costs of 2 lanes on a HiSeq sequencing machine to sequence the DNA from the faecal sample.
If $14,000 is raised, we will increase the sample size to 72, which will allow us to sequence the metagenome of the original 48 samples, plus include additional samples from 2 different colonies for little and macaroni penguins.
If $19,000 is raised, in addition to being able to complete the study above, we will also be able to sequence the metagenome of fasting king, gentoo and little penguins. This additional analysis will provide insight into how penguins are adapted to long periods of fasting and how fasting during moult influences their microbiome and metabolic pathways.
The greatest challenge for this project will be the metagenomic analysis. Metagenomic sequencing produces a large amount of data that will need to be analysed, luckily within our team we have highly experienced bioinformaticians who are experienced in working with metagenomic data. This work however will be time consuming and meticulous.