Scientist creating test tube penguins

African penguins are among the smaller breeds, known for their irregular markings and loud voices.

The species is also in sharp decline, from a population of more than one million at the beginning of the 20th century to just 55,000 in 2010 – when they were declared endangered.

South African bioscientist Patrick Siyambulela Mafunda learned of the birds’ plight while researching options for his PhD at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). He discussed the major challenges of conservation with supervisors and arrived at a novel approach: In-vitro fertilization (IVF).

“What pushed me was knowing this was the only African penguin species we have,” says Mafunda. “Preserving a genetic pool could be vital.”

There was another incentive. While similar experiments had been conducted with other species, Mafunda knew of no other effort to artificially inseminate an African penguin. He could be the first.

Massage technique

The research proved labor-intensive and required the scientist and his collaborators to get their hands dirty.

The first stage was to study the reproductive organs of dead birds to develop an understanding of their biological cycles.

Next came the more challenging assignment of extracting sperm from live penguins. Mufunda had developed an abdominal massage technique for this purpose, to be conducted during breeding season when the penguins were at their most virile.

This delicate task was to be performed by staff at Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium.

“The handlers work with the penguins every day, so the penguins react better to them,” says Mafunda. “They are not known for being friendly.”

The process was complicated by the penguins’ desires. If the birds had already found a partner to mate with, they would not play ball with human handlers.

But over several breeding seasons, Mafunda was able to collect sufficient sperm samples, which he rushed to the UWC labs for preservation and quality analysis.

He cross-checked the samples against blood and fecal tissue to build up a detailed picture of the birds’ hormonal processes.

Live tests

With an unprecedented collection of samples now at his disposal, Mafunda’s next target goal is fertilization.

“The next stage is to create a biobank for African penguin sperm that we know is good quality,” says Mafunda. “That will allow us to perform the IVF and produce (fertilized) eggs.”

There are two options from that point. The eggs could be incubated in lab ovens for 30-40 days until they hatch, or Mafunda could go the more ambitious route of implanting the egg into a living penguin and allow nature to do the rest. At this point, he is more focused on the former option.

The bioscientist is hoping for new partnerships with academic and conservation institutions to offer funding and support that will allow him to continue his research and deliver the proof of concept: the first lab-cultivated living African penguin.

If this can be secured, Mafunda is confident his work can play a part in helping to reverse the decline of the species.

“I believe this can be a solution,” he says. “There are many strategies required for conservation, we cannot rely on just one. This is one of the strategies I believe we must use.”

In the wild

Mafunda’s study shows promise but will require development to be applied on a large enough scale to impact conservation efforts, according to Professor Antoinette Kotze, manager of research and scientific services at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (NZG).

“He has shown it can work to extract semen from penguins, which is quite a difficult process,” says Kotze, who also served as a supervisor on Mafunda’s project.

“Whether it can work in the wild I’m not sure. The process of analyzing and preservation of sperm is not a problem, but in the wild there is no clear way of collecting sperm…I think the next step is to perfect a technique of collection from wild penguins.”

Christina Hagen, a conservationist at Birdlife South Africa, believes the research may have potential but is not an immediate conservation priority.

“There is still an African penguin population in the wild that will be able to breed successfully given the right conditions,” says Hagen. “The sperm bank could come into play if the population drops to really low levels.”

“The trouble facing the penguins is a lack of food such as sardines and anchovies. There are real problems with availability of their diet…that has in our view caused a massive decline. Until we address that, putting more penguins out there won’t solve the problem.”

However, Hagen recognizes that IVF techniques are a growth field within conservation – they have been used with threatened species including bison and rhino – and suggests they might play a useful role in emergencies.

“With endangered species, we should try as much as we can that won’t hurt animals or species so we should look at these ideas,” she says. “Also it is good to develop these techniques in advance of when you need them, rather than having to rush at the last minute and not have them ready.”