Penguins family tree, new research


This March 2020 video says about itself:

When Penguins Went From The Sky To The Sea

Today, we think of penguins as small-ish, waddling, tuxedo-birds. But they evolved from a flying ancestor, were actual giants for millions of years, and some of them were even dressed a little more casually.

From the University of California – Berkeley in the USA:

Penguins are Aussies: Or are they Kiwis?

First genome comparison gives insight into penguin origins, evolution

August 17, 2020

Summary: Researchers sequenced the genomes of all 18 recognized species of penguin to assemble a family tree, showing that the largest of the penguins – king and emperor – split off from all other penguins not long after penguins arose 22 million years ago in Australia and New Zealand. Other penguins diversified after Drake’s Passage opened, revving up the circumpolar current and allowing penguins to spread throughout the southern hemisphere.

From the four-foot-tall emperor penguin to the aptly named foot-long little penguin, these unique flightless birds have invaded habitats from Antarctica to the equator, not to mention the hearts of the public.

A comparison of the full genomes of 18 recognized species of penguins provides clues to how they achieved this success — though not their adorability — over tens of millions of years, through warm and cold climate swings. It also cautions that today’s rapidly changing climate may be too much for them.

“We are able to show how penguins have been able to diversify to occupy the incredibly different thermal environments they live in today, going from 9 degrees Celsius (48 F) in the waters around Australia and New Zealand, down to negative temperatures in Antarctica and up to 26 degrees (79 F) in the Galápagos Islands,” said Rauri Bowie, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and curator in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at Berkeley. “But we want to make the point that it has taken millions of years for penguins to be able to occupy such diverse habitats, and at the rate that oceans are warming, penguins are not going to be able to adapt fast enough to keep up with changing climate.”

The researchers established conclusively that penguins arose in the cool coastal regions of Australia and New Zealand, not frigid Antarctica, as many scientists thought, and they pinpoint the origin of penguins at about 22 million years ago.

Despite their success in spreading widely throughout the Southern Hemisphere, many penguin populations are now threatened. Breeding colonies of emperor penguins in Antarctica have had to relocate because of receding sea ice, while last year saw mass mortality of Adélie penguin chicks on the continent. Galápagos penguin populations are declining as warm El Niño events become more common. In New Zealand, populations of little and yellow-eyed penguins must be fenced off to protect them from the depredations of feral cats, while African penguin populations are declining drastically as the waters off southern Africa warm.

“We saw, over millions of years, that the diversification of penguins decreased with increasing temperature, but that was over a longtime scale,” said Juliana Vianna, associate professor of ecosystems and environment at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago. “Right now, changes in the climate and environment are going too fast for some species to respond to the climate change.”

Vianna is first author of a paper with Bowie and other colleagues describing their findings that will be published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Where did penguins come from?

For the study, Vianna, Bowie and colleagues at museums and universities around the world gathered blood and tissue samples from 22 penguins representing 18 species and then sequenced and analyzed their whole genomes to chart penguin movement and diversification over the millennia.

Their conclusions resolve several long-standing questions: in particular, where penguins originated — along the coasts of Australia, New Zealand and nearby islands of the South Pacific — and when — 22 million years ago. The genetic evidence indicates that the ancestors of the king and emperor penguins, the two largest species, soon split off from the other penguins and moved to sub-Antarctic and Antarctic waters, respectively, presumably to take advantage of abundant food resources. This scenario is consistent with the contested hypothesis that the emperor and king penguins — the only two species in the genus Aptenodytes — are the sister group to all other penguin lineages.

“It was very satisfying to be able to resolve the phylogeny, which has been debated for a long time,” Bowie said. “The debate hinged on where, exactly, the emperor and king penguins were placed in the family tree, whether they are nested inside the tree closer to other lineages of penguins or whether they are sisters to all the other penguins, which is what our phylogeny showed and some other previous studies had suggested. And it fits with the rich fossil history of penguins.”

The other penguins diversified and spread widely across the southern oceans, after the Drake’s Passage between Antarctica and the southern tip of South America fully opened about 12 million years ago. The opening revved up the clockwise-moving Antarctic Circumpolar Current allowed these flightless birds to swim with the ocean currents throughout the southern ocean, populating both the cold sub-Antarctic islands and the warmer coastal areas of South America and Africa, where they populated to coastlines and remote islands with cold, upwelling, nutrient-rich water.

Today, penguins are found in Australia and New Zealand (yellow-eyed, little and other crested penguins), Antarctica (emperor, Adélie, gentoo and chinstrap), the tropical west coast of South America (Galápagos and Humboldt), the southern coasts of South America (Magellanic and southern rockhopper), the South Atlantic (Magellanic and Macaroni), southern Africa (African) and some in the sub-Antarctic (king, gentoo and Macaroni), Indian Ocean islands (eastern rockhopper) and sub-tropical regions (northern rockhopper).

Using powerful analysis techniques, some developed recently to analyze historical interactions among humans and our Neanderthal and Denisovan relatives, the researchers were able to determine that several groups of penguins have interbred over the course of their evolutionary history. Through exchange of genetic material, penguins may have shared genetic traits that facilitated the diversification of penguins across the steep thermal and salinity gradients encountered in the southern oceans. The most hybridized are the rockhopper penguins and their close relatives, which experienced at least four introgressions, or transfers of genetic information, over the course of millions of years.

The team also pinpointed genetic adaptions that allowed penguins to thrive in new and challenging environments, including changes in genes responsible for regulating body temperature, which allowed them to adapt to subzero Antarctic temperatures, as well as tropical temperatures near the equator; oxygen consumption that permitted deeper dives; and osmoregulation, so they could survive on seawater without the need to find fresh water.

New analytical tools helped the researchers to infer the sizes of ancient penguin populations going back about 1 million years. Most penguin species, they found, increased to their greatest numbers as the world cooled 40,000 to 70,000 years ago during the last glaciation — many species prefer to breed on snow and ice — and some had a bump in population during the previous glaciation period 140,000 years ago.

Two species — the gentoo and the Galápagos — seem to have been declining in populations for at least the past 1 million years.

DNA from the most isolated birds on Earth

Vianna has long-running research projects on penguins in Chile and Antarctica and, for this study, obtained blood samples from many species in those areas. Colleagues in France, Norway, Brazil, Australia, the United States and South Africa supplied blood from some remote species — Norwegian colleagues provided blood from the chinstrap penguin of the Bouvet islands, for example — while Vianna and Bowie obtained blood samples from an African penguin in a colony at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

But some species were harder to locate. The researchers were forced to rely on tissue from a preserved specimen of the yellow-eyed penguin in UC Berkeley’s MVZ, while the American Museum of Natural History in New York supplied tissue from preserved erect-crested and Fiordland penguins.

Each genome was sequenced 30 times by Illumina shotgun sequencing, which produced tiny pieces — about 150 base pairs long — of the entire genome. Vianna, who at the time was working with Bowie at UC Berkeley on a sabbatical, painstakingly aligned each piece along a reference genome that had previously been sequenced — that of the emperor penguin — as a scaffold.

“Having a reference genome is like using the cover of a puzzle box to assemble a jigsaw puzzle: You can take all your super little pieces and align them to that reference genome,” Bowie said. “We did that with each of these penguin genomes.”

The genome comparisons told them that penguins arose between 21 million and 22 million years ago, narrowing down the 10-to-40-million-year window determined previously from fossil penguins.

They also disproved a paper published last year that suggested that the closely related king and emperor penguins were a sister group to the gentoo and Adélie penguins. Instead, they found that the king and emperor penguins are the sister group to all other penguins.

Vianna and Bowie now have genome sequences of 300 individual penguins and are diving more deeply into the genetic variations within and among disparate penguin populations. They recently discovered a new lineage of penguin that awaits scientific description.

“Penguins are very charismatic, certainly,” Vianna said. “But I hope these studies also lead to better conservation.”

The work was supported by the Chilean Antarctic Institute, Fondecyt Project, GAB PIA CONICYT (ACT172065) and the U.S. National Science Foundation (DEB-1441652). Among the paper’s co-authors are Ke Bi and Cynthia Wang-Claypool of UC Berkeley and Daly Noll of Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

Spacecraft discovers new emperor penguin colonies


This 5 August 2020 video says about itself:

Satellites find new colonies of Emperor penguins

Satellites have discovered 11 previously unknown emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica. WION’s Palki Sharma tells you why this is a major discovery.

At the beginning of the video, also Adelie penguins.

From the British Antarctic Survey:

Scientists discover new penguin colonies from space

August 4, 2020

A new study using satellite mapping technology reveals there are nearly 20% more emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica than was previously thought. The results provide an important benchmark for monitoring the impact of environmental change on the population of this iconic bird.

Reporting this week in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation, the authors describe how they used images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission to locate the birds. They found 11 new colonies, three of which were previously identified but never confirmed. That takes the global census to 61 colonies around the continent.

Emperor penguins need sea ice to breed and are located in areas that are very difficult to study because they are remote and often inaccessible with temperatures as low as 50°C (58 degrees Fahrenheit). For the last 10 years, British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists have been looking for new colonies by searching for their guano stains on the ice.

Lead author Dr Peter Fretwell, a geographer at BAS says:

“This is an exciting discovery. The new satellite images of Antarctica’s coastline have enabled us to find these new colonies. And whilst this is good news, the colonies are small and so only take the overall population count up by 5-10% to just over half a million penguins or around 265,500 — 278,500 breeding pairs.”

Emperor penguins are known to be vulnerable to loss of sea ice, their favoured breeding habitat. With current projections of climate change, this habitat is likely to decline. Most of the newly found colonies are situated at the margins of the emperors’ breeding range. Therefore, these locations are likely to be lost as the climate warms.

Dr Phil Trathan, Head of Conservation Biology at BAS, has been studying penguins for the last three decades. He says:

“Whilst it’s good news that we’ve found these new colonies, the breeding sites are all in locations where recent model projections suggest emperors will decline. Birds in these sites are therefore probably the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ — we need to watch these sites carefully as climate change will affect this region.”

The study found a number of colonies located far offshore, situated on sea ice that has formed around icebergs that had grounded in shallow water. These colonies, up to 180 km offshore, are a surprising new finding in the behaviour of this increasingly well-known species.

The research was funded by UKRI-NERC as part of the Wildlife from Space project.

Big prehistoric penguin-like seabirds, new research


This 29 June 2020 video says about itself:

Five-foot-tall penguin-like birds that roamed the Northern Hemisphere 37 million years ago had ‘doppelgangers’ in New Zealand, bone fossils suggest.

Plotopterids, an extinct family of flightless seabirds, had strikingly similar bone fragments to the ‘monster penguins’ that lived in New Zealand more than 60 million years ago. Although they existed at different times, both types of ‘megafauna’ had long beaks with slit-like nostrils, and similar chest and shoulder bones and wing structures.

This suggests they were both strong swimmers that used their wings to propel themselves deep underwater in search of food. Kiwi biologists say the similarity can help explain how birds such as today’s penguins developed the ability to swim with their wings and became less competent flyers. Plotopterids like Copepteryx, which were endemic to Japan around 25 million years ago, looked remarkably like penguins.

From the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand:

New Zealand’s ancient monster penguins had northern hemisphere doppelgangers

June 30, 2020

New Zealand’s monster penguins that lived 62 million years ago had doppelgangers in Japan, the USA and Canada, a study published today in the Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research has found.

Scientists have identified striking similarities between the penguins’ fossilised bones and those of a group of much younger Northern Hemisphere birds, the plotopterids.

These similarities suggest plotopterids and ancient penguins looked very similar and might help scientists understand how birds started using their wings to swim instead of fly.

Around 62 million years ago, the earliest known penguins swam in tropical seas that almost submerged the land that is now New Zealand. Palaeontologists have found the fossilised bones of these ancient waddlers at Waipara, North Canterbury. They have identified nine different species, ranging in size from small penguins, the size of today’s Yellow-Eyed Penguin, to 1.6 metre-high monsters.

Plotopterids developed in the Northern Hemisphere much later than penguins, with the first species appearing between 37 and 34 million years ago. Their fossils have been found at a number of sites in North America and Japan. Like penguins, they used their flipper-like wings to swim through the sea. Unlike penguins, which have survived into the modern era, the last plotopterid species became extinct around 25 million years ago.

The scientists — Dr Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum, Frankfurt; James Goedert of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and University of Washington, USA; and Canterbury Museum Curators Dr Paul Scofield and Dr Vanesa De Pietri — compared the fossilised bones of plotopterids with fossil specimens of the giant penguin species Waimanu, Muriwaimanu and Sequiwaimanu from Canterbury Museum’s collection.

They found plotopterids and the ancient penguins had similar long beaks with slit-like nostrils, similar chest and shoulder bones, and similar wings. These similarities suggest both groups of birds were strong swimmers that used their wings to propel them deep underwater in search of food.

Some species of both groups could grow to huge sizes. The largest known plotopterids were over 2 metres long, while some of the giant penguins were up to 1.6 metres tall.

Despite sharing a number of physical features with penguins both ancient and modern, plotopterids are more closely related to boobies, gannets and cormorants than they are to penguins.

“What’s remarkable about all this is that plotopterids and ancient penguins evolved these shared features independently,” says Dr De Pietri. “This is an example of what we call convergent evolution, when distantly related organisms develop similar morphological traits under similar environmental conditions.”

Dr Scofield says some large plotopterid species would have looked very similar to the ancient penguins. “These birds evolved in different hemispheres, millions of years apart, but from a distance, you would be hard-pressed to tell them apart,” he says. “Plotopterids looked like penguins, they swam like penguins, they probably ate like penguins — but they weren’t penguins.”

Dr Mayr says the parallels in the evolution of the bird groups hint at an explanation for why birds developed the ability to swim with their wings.

“Wing-propelled diving is quite rare among birds; most swimming birds use their feet. We think both penguins and plotodopterids had flying ancestors that would plunge from the air into the water in search of food. Over time these ancestor species got better at swimming and worse at flying.”

Fossils from New Zealand’s giant penguins, including Waimanu and Sequiwaimanu are currently on display alongside life-sized models of the birds in Canterbury Museum’s exhibition Ancient New Zealand: Squawkzilla and the Giants, extended until 16 August 2020.

This research was partly supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Marsden Fund.

How Humboldt penguins nest, new research


This 2014 video says about itself:

The Humboldt penguin is found only along the rugged Pacific coast of Peru and Chile. Although most people think of penguins as cold-weather birds, most live in temperate or even tropical habitats. The Humboldt penguin lives where one of the earth’s driest deserts meets one of the coldest ocean currents.

The Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Punta San Juan, Peru, and its partners are working to protect penguins and other marine life in this area.

Read more about Humboldt penguin conservation here.

From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau in the USA:

Blood markers predict Humboldt penguin nest type, reproductive success

June 2, 2020

Summary: Researchers looked at metabolic markers in the blood of 30 Humboldt penguins nesting in the Punta San Juan Marine Protected Area in Peru. The scientists discovered metabolic differences between penguins nesting in sheltered burrows and those in more exposed areas. Nesting success is critical to the Humboldt penguins’ survival as a species.

From March to December every year, Humboldt penguins nest in vast colonies on the Peruvian and Chilean coasts. The lucky ones find prime habitat for their nests in deep deposits of chalky guano where they can dig out sheltered burrows. The rest must look for rocky outcrops or other protected spaces that are more exposed to predators and environmental extremes.

In a new study, researchers looked at metabolic markers in the blood of 30 Humboldt penguins nesting in the Punta San Juan Marine Protected Area in Peru. The scientists wanted to know if there were metabolic differences between penguins nesting in the guano-rich burrows and in the exposed areas.

Nesting success is critical to the Humboldt penguins’ long-term survival as a species. Decades of aggressive guano harvesting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — a practice eventually replaced with more sustainable methods — depleted the Peruvian coastline and near-shore islands of their historical bird guano deposits that provided habitat for nesting penguins. Guano mining, climate change and other threats have led to a dramatic decline in Humboldt penguin populations across their range. Today, there are only about 32,000 of the birds — down from hundreds of thousands less than a century ago — and their numbers continue to fall.

“Punta San Juan and other protected marine areas and reserves along the coast of Peru still provide some protected sites with good guano deposits that the penguins are able to dig into to make their nests,” said Dr. Michael Adkesson, the vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo.

Adkesson led the research with David Schaeffer, a professor emeritus of veterinary clinical medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Jeff Levengood, a researcher with the Illinois Natural History Survey.

“We know from studies by Peruvian biologists that penguins produce more chicks with higher survival rates when they are able to dig burrow nests into guano deposits,” Adkesson said. “So we wanted to see if we could detect — based on the blood of these birds — metabolic differences that would indicate the penguins nesting in less ideal nest sites were using more energy to deal with the fact that they’re more exposed to the weather and predators.”

The task was a challenge because few studies have analyzed blood metabolites in birds and the researchers did not have a hypothesis about what they would find, said Schaeffer, who, with Levengood, conducted the statistical analyses of 19 saccharide metabolites.

Their work revealed that penguins in sheltered and unsheltered locations had consistent — and distinct — patterns of several sugars in their blood. The blood sugars that best predicted the birds’ nesting habitat included arabinose, maltose, glucose-6-phosphate and levoglucosenone.

That last sugar is a metabolic byproduct of exposure to a pollutant, levoglucosan, which is generated by the burning of cellulose. Setting fire to agricultural waste is common in regions near the nesting colony. Forest fires also generate levoglucosan. This metabolite was higher in the birds in exposed nests.

“This unexpected finding is one of the few indicators that we have that the unsheltered penguins are being exposed to more air pollution than their counterparts in burrows,” Schaeffer said.

The differences in the other saccharides likely reflect the extra metabolic stresses the penguins in exposed nest sites experience, the researchers said. More research is needed to tease out the relationships between these metabolites and their health.

“This is another tool in the toolbox of understanding what’s going on with the penguins in this region,” Adkesson said. “We know the penguins can adapt to the lack of good nesting habitat to some extent, but it’s not ideal for the long-term survival of the species. We hope that by looking at what’s going on in their blood we can better predict how changes in the environment will affect their health and reproductive success, with the ultimate goal of shaping conservation strategies that protect the penguins and their habitat.”

King penguins, other wildlife of South Georgia


This 29 May 2020 video says about itself:

South Georgia – Penguin Paradise of the South Atlantic | Free Documentary – Nature

In the middle of the Antarctic Ocean, an entire mountain range arises from the water: South Georgia, the nursery of the Antarctic. Hundreds of thousands of penguins, elephant seals, fur seals and their young overcrowd the beaches.

The rough weather and the extremely difficult access to the island cause filmmaking to be an endeavor requiring much of the film crew around Roland Gockel and Rosie Koch and the state of the art cameras. A lot of patience and sensitivity over a period spanning some five years now offers unknown and poignant insights into the life of the king penguins on South Georgia Island.

Antarctic whale and penguins, video


This 22 May 2020 Dutch video shows a whale and penguins in the Antarctic.

It says about itself (translated):

Just before the coronavirus crisis, he made the journey of a lifetime. Jazz musician and birdwatcher Ruben Hein signed up as an “artist in residence” on a ship full of biologists, towards the South Pole. He is now incorporating the pristine nature experiences along the way, and the encounters with elephant seals, king penguins and wandering albatrosses, into his music.

Filmed by Marcel Paul.

Antarctic penguins and climate change


This 8 April 2020 video says about itself:

Antarctica, climate change and a tale of two penguins

Jonathan Watts visits Antarctica with a team of scientists to look at how human activity and rising temperatures are creating winners and losers among penguins – and why this should be a warning to us all.

Food wrapping, fishing gear and plastic waste continue to reach the Antarctic. Two new studies detail how plastic debris is reaching sub-Antarctic islands: here.

Chicago penguins benefit from coronavirus pandemic


This 17 March 2020 video from the USA says about itself:

Penguins wander empty Chicago aquarium during coronavirus closure

While most of the American public is asked to stay indoors amid the coronavirus pandemic, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium took the opportunity to let some of its penguins explore the other side of their glass exhibit. A now-viral video shows the flightless birds wandering the aquarium, looking around at the fish and other fixtures of the space.

This video says about itself:

Without guests in the building, caretakers at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium are getting creative in how they provide enrichment to animals, resulting in a field trip for some of the penguins there on Sunday (March 15 2020). While the aquarium is closed to the public due to coronavirus quarantine, animal care staff and veterinarians are onsite 24/7.

At least 83 people in the United States have died from the virus, as of Monday (March 16), according to Johns Hopkins University and public health agencies, with the hardest-hit state, Washington, accounting for the bulk of the fatalities, including six more announced on Monday.

Penguin evolution, video


This 18 March 2020 video says about itself:

When Penguins Went From The Sky To The Sea

Today, we think of penguins as small-ish, waddling, tuxedo-birds. But they evolved from a flying ancestor, were actual giants for millions of years, and some of them were even dressed a little more casually.

How emperor penguins stay warm by huddling


This 27 December 2019 video about emperor penguins says about itself:

How Does Huddling Help Penguins Stay Warm? | BBC Earth

The centre of a penguin huddle can reach temperatures of up to 37 degrees C! How exactly does piling in help these snow animals stay so warm?