DRAPER — Prevailing wisdom has maintained that penguins are monogamous creatures — two parents bonded for life. Take Roto and Copper, and Coco and Gossamer, for example, two gentoo penguin couples at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium.
Roto and Copper have raised three chicks of their own, supposedly never straying, and biology professionals have had no reason to believe otherwise — until recently.
“The staff that watches over the penguins noticed that some of the penguins were displaying behavior that suggested they might not be 100 percent faithful to their mates,” said Eric Domyan, a professor of biology at Utah Valley University who led the research project.
After these observations, the aquarium partnered with the university to test the DNA of 19 of their penguins.
“What we found is that of the eight offspring tested, two of them had a biological father that was not their social father,” Domyan said.
In other words, paternity testing showed that Roto is the father of two chicks that had been believed to be Gossamer’s offspring. Coco and Roto had been sneaking around.
Beyond the drama we associate with daytime talk shows, these test results will impact how aquarium staff ensure the health and diversity of their penguin population for generations to come.
“What makes that so important is that the staff needs to work to minimize inbreeding over the generations,” Domyan said. “Those offspring could suffer from different genetic disorders or increased susceptibility to infection, things like that.”
Aquarium staff can no longer blindly trust that their penguins will remain faithful to each other in their efforts to minimize inbreeding.
“What it comes down to is these animals are going to breed,” said Steve Vogel, the director of zoological operations at the aquarium. “Not only do I not want to stop it — I want them to. But I want them to breed and maintain the diversity.”
The new research published in Zoo Biology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal could have far-reaching ramifications in the way other aquariums and zoos approach conservation efforts for this species, said Eric Domyan, a professor of biology at Utah Valley University who advised the research project.
“I, as a geneticist, I thought this would be a great opportunity to get some experience for my students conducting genetic testing on these penguins,” Domyan said.
Lauren Lee, a senior biotech major, and Nathan Tirrell, a recent biology graduate from UVU, did all the heavy lifting, according to Domyan.
“It was so cool to be part of something bigger,” Lee said. “Being able to use — have a practical application of all the things I was studying, it was really fun. Plus, you get to see the penguins.”
Tirrell, who plans on pursuing a career as a physician assistant, said that while working with penguins isn’t exactly applicable to human medicine, the experience has been rewarding.
“I think genetics are becoming a much more central part of medicine,” Tirrell said. “So I feel like the introduction has given me a familiarity and a comfort with dealing with genetics.”
As gentoo penguin DNA sequencing was done in order to determine paternity, UVU researchers had to sequence almost 200,000 locations in the penguin genome. Their results identified 38,000 differences — differences that were used to determine the relationships between birds.
Now, with the advent of UVU’s research, aquarium staff can be 20 percent more accurate than their original behavioral observations.
“For those of us that do this on a regular basis, this is a really big deal,” Vogel said. “To be 20 percent more accurate, I’m telling you, that’s never been done before. And that’s what makes it so exciting.”