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One penguin’s waste is another win for science! Researchers are studying what comes out of Magellanic penguins in Argentina to get a better idea of what goes in. Shedd is lending our expertise with new methods to collect and analyze penguin poop, called guano, to determine what that animal ate and where it came from. In turn, we’ll discover how we can best protect those resources and penguins at large.

A Magellanic penguin stands on the rocks of its Polar Play Zone habitat, other penguins visible in the background swimming on their stomachs in the water.

The Missing Link

About 7,000 pairs of Magellanic penguins live in a colony in the South American region of Patagonia. At the end of September, male penguins begin to build a nest, and then the females join them to mate. Once the eggs are laid, the females sit on the eggs as the males venture into the open ocean for about 20 days to hunt. When the males return, similarly the females fish for about 20 days and return in time for the eggs to hatch. While raising their offspring, the adults take short trips, about 24 to 48 hours at a time, to eat closer to land.

Although scientists know where the penguins go to hunt, they don’t know what food the penguins are eating. It is thought that the range of higher-quality, fattier food sources has shifted farther north and south, meaning the penguins have to travel longer distances. It also could mean the food closer to land that they eat on shorter trips may not be as nutritious. The quality of these food sources, and how often they can eat for themselves and feed their offspring, is directly related to the health of the penguin chicks and can affect their ability to thrive.

Why Poop?

Currently, there is no way to reliably assess the diets of wild penguins without significantly disrupting individuals in a nesting colony. Excrement can tell us a lot about the health of an animal, so we’ve decided to utilize this abundant, untapped resource. Collecting fecal samples, and then performing DNA sequencing of those samples, can tell us what that penguin ate without disrupting the nests.

This work can advance both the understanding of penguins and the application of field science to potentially provide protections for penguin prey.

Scientist in laboratory getting samples ready for testing.

Frank Oliaro analyzes guano samples in the lab

A volunteer holds vials containing penguin fecal samples in the lab at the Shedd Aquarium.

Guano samples

Shedd's Involvement

Shedd is working on this project in collaboration with researchers at UC Davis from The Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center’s Latin America Program and the Argentinian National Research Council’s Center for the Study of Marine Systems (CESIMAR-CONICET).

Shedd Aquarium’s Molecular and Microbial Ecology Group helped determine the best way to collect, store, transport and analyze penguin fecal samples. Shedd’s own Magellanic penguin colony contributed to the work by validating the research methods as a control group. For several days, a group of penguins at the aquarium were fed a different, known mixture of fish, squid and shrimp. Then fecal samples were collected and analyzed in the Molecular and Microbial Ecology Lab to test storage methods and verify genetic DNA markers for these prey types.   

Then, two members of Shedd’s animal care team spent two weeks in Patagonia to monitor the penguin colony and collect fecal samples from the wild population for future analysis. Over the course of nesting season, the collaborative team hopes to collect about 150 fecal samples. Those samples will be shipped back to Shedd to be studied in the lab by Shedd’s lab manager Frank Oliaro.

It will take several years of data to get a better idea of the penguins’ diets and how changes in the environment could be impacting their prey availability. The results of this effort will inform future protections for these food sources. In addition, in the long-term, Shedd hopes to assist partners in Argentina by strengthening local diagnostic capacities.

Magellanic penguins have short, squat legs and waddle awkwardly around on land, but their torpedo-shaped bodies and thin, crescent-shaped wings propel them easily through water!
Three Magellanic penguins with their mouths agape as they loudly vocalize together.

How Can You Help?

Many penguin populations are declining, and the reasons for this are poorly understood. All penguin species face threats of habitat degradation, overfishing, incidental mortality in fishing nets, pollution and climate change.

But you can help! Supporting Shedd through a visit, membership or a donation can contribute to our work to achieve a world thriving with aquatic life, sustained by people who love, understand and protect it. And learn more about Shedd’s Magellanic and rockhopper penguin colony.