Does the survival of the African penguin lie in sperm banks?

2018-12-22 09:03
Ayoba, one of the African penguin sperm donors. (Photo supplied, Two Oceans Aquarium)

Ayoba, one of the African penguin sperm donors. (Photo supplied, Two Oceans Aquarium)

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Test-tube babies for African penguins?

Penguin sperm banks?

Sounds far-fetched. But a researcher at the University of the Western Cape has taken the first step towards in vitro fertilisation of these threatened birds.

"That's my dream, to be able to do that for these threatened African penguins. It's never been done before for this species and that is my goal," said Patrick Siyambulela Mafunda.

His doctoral thesis has laid the foundation. Mafunda spent two years developing a protocol to preserve African penguin sperm, using semen from two penguins at the Two Oceans Aquarium.

"The African penguin is Africa's only penguin species and it is listed as an endangered species. So if we don't come up with good plans to conserve these animals, they'll be extinct soon,” Mafunda said.

While there have been many studies done on the conservation of this species, there were none on the reproductive biology.

"We needed to understand the reproductive biology if we are going to help preserve the species, especially if we want to do in vitro fertilisation eventually.”

WATCH: Penguins caught in fishing nets, malnourished & thrown overboard find solace in CT

Mafunda's two sperm donors were Ayoba and Agape, whose home is Cape Town's Two Ocean's Aquarium.

It's a tricky business, dealing with penguins, as they can give a mean "bite" and use their claws to scratch.

The first part of the research was to describe the histology and ultra-structural features of the birds' testes and ovaries, which Mafunda did from dead penguins from Sanccob rehabilitation centre in Tableview.

"Some of the penguins had to be euthanised because they were too weak to survive in the wild."

The next part of the research was to find out when they breed, to collect semen and to find a way to preserve it for future insemination. Mafunda had to take blood samples from the penguins' feet for hormonal profiles, and collect fresh faeces, which involves waiting around and then grabbing the penguin poo as soon as it lands.

Breeding seasons

The penguins have two breeding seasons: a short season in January and February, and a longer one from August to November.

Getting the sperm involved a particular type of abdominal massage. This Mafunda did not do himself as in order to reduce stress on the birds, it was important that it was done by one of the aquarium staff who the penguins knew and saw daily.

"So I trained them in the massage technique. The penguins became very friendly then, they enjoyed it. Generally, the African penguin is not friendly."

Once he had the semen in a specimen jar, Mafunda had to rush back to his laboratory at UWC as quickly as possible for analysis. But there was another obstacle in his way: the Fees Must Fall protest action that led to universities closing at times.

"For two years, Fees Must Fall action would occur at the same time as the penguin breeding season, making it very difficult to get my work done. January was chaos. I was so frustrated, because to do this research I had to have a lot of samples."

In the end, he managed to get enough to carry on with the project.


Agape, one of the African penguin sperm donors. (Photo supplied, Two Oceans Aquarium)

"I am very happy with the results. We developed a way to preserve semen and to create a biobank. That is important because if the species numbers drop even more, and in vitro fertilisation becomes an option, this research has provided a foundation for other areas of research."

Mafunda, whose background is in medical bioscience, comes from the small town of Matatiele in the Eastern Cape, near the Lesotho border.

WATCH: Penguins put best foot forward in daily parade through aquarium

"It was always my dream to move into research, but I did not really pay much attention to natural environment. Then, when I was reading a government publication, I came across an article about a biodiversity management plan, and read that the African penguin is the only one on the continent, and I became interested."

From that, he developed his thesis topic.

"Now that I've got to understand more about the environment, I realise why it is so important to teach people about it, because there are just so many threats - plastic pollution for instance."

The African penguin occurs in Namibia and South Africa. In historic times, numbers were estimated to be around one million birds, but those numbers have since plummeted. Reasons include reduced food availability around breeding colonies, predation by seals and kelp gulls, and oil spills.

Researcher Rob Crawford recorded a collapse of penguin numbers in South Africa from about 56 000 breeding pairs in 2001 to 21 000 pairs in 2009 – a loss of 35 000 pairs (more than 60%) in just eight years.

Read more on:    cape town  |  animals

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