African penguin and baby

Lynda F. Rysavy | 10/25/2019

Juvenile Penguin sitting on a blanket looking upThe African penguin is classified as endangered and is declining rapidly due to a combination of threats, including being abandoned, nests destroyed, or even impacted by oil spills. The species has declined by more than 60 percent since the year 2000. If this trend continues, African Penguins may become extinct by 2050. Understanding and improving the rehabilitation and care of young penguins is essential to the survival of this species. 

Adam M. Schaefer , M.P.H., an epidemiologist from  Florida Atlantic University ’s   Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute  joined forces with scientists from the  Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds  (SANCCOB) to preserve this species and optimize rehabilitation efforts. Located near Cape Town, South Africa, SANCCOB receives more than 900 African Penguins for rehabilitation each year.

 In 2018, the researchers conducted a first-of-its-kind study on prognostic health indicators such as body mass, blood analysis, and infectious disease exposure. For the study, they analyzed 3,657 adult African Penguins admitted to the SANCCOB facility for rehabilitation between 2002 and 2013. The results, published in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases ,  provide invaluable information on the importance of minimizing their rehabilitation time and treating their diseases early in the process. While the success rate for the overall release of adult penguins back into the wild is about 75 percent, juvenile and chick rehabilitation is less successful.

To better understand why younger chicks were more likely to die during rehabilitation, the research group did a second study to analyze the data of 6,512 immature African Penguins admitted to the SANCCOB facility for rehabilitation during the same time period. The results also were published in the  Journal of Wildlife Diseases .

The researchers calculated the effects of season of admission, the reason for admittance, blood parasite infection status, and body mass, hematocrit, and total plasma protein upon admission in determining whether an individual penguin was likely to be released after rehabilitation.

“We identified and measured distinct health challenges young penguins experience that require a substantially different level of care and investment during rehabilitation,” said Schaefer, co-author of the study who collaborated with Nola J. Parsons, BVSc., Ph.D., SANCCOB, and Ralph E.T. Vanstreels, D.V.M., Ph.D., Nelson Mandela University. “These challenges include a high risk for chicks admitted after being abandoned by their parents, debilitation and delayed molting.”

Juvenile penguin laying downPlasmodium infection contributed to natural death for all age groups and to the decision to euthanize chicks, whereas Borrelia infection contributed to both natural death and the decision blues (chicks without downy plumage that are about to fledge or have recently fledged). Babesia infection was associated with decreased odds of euthanasia among juveniles. Low hematocrit at admission contributed to the natural death of chicks and blues and euthanasia of blues. Low total plasma protein, on the other hand, contributed to natural death in chicks, blues, and juveniles. Whereas, high total plasma protein had a protective effect against natural death in chicks.

The results highlight some of the challenges involved in the conservation of the African Penguin, such as the need for marine protected areas and fisheries management. Researchers recommend the development of an effective method to proactively mitigate the effects of malnutrition, treat parasites, and establish criteria for chick removal. 

“This research identifies a need to focus on prevention and early intervention among compromised penguins to increase the rehabilitation success to save this endangered species,” said Vanstreels.