25 September 2016

Twenty-eight years of natural selection in Magellanic penguins

Magellanic penguin at Punta Tombo showing its metal band.
Credit: Dee Boersma
ARGENTINA  –  Biologists of all stripes attest to evolution, but have debated its details since Darwin’s day. Since changes arise and take hold slowly over many generations, it is daunting to track this process in real time for long-lived creatures.

“We know that evolution occurs – that species change,” said Dee Boersma, a University of Washington (UW) professor of biology.

“But to see this process in long-lived animals you have to look at generations of individuals, track how traits are inherited and detect selection at work.”

Boersma studies one particularly intriguing long-lived species, the Magellanic penguins of South America. She has spent 34 years gathering information about their lifespan, reproduction and behaviour at Punta Tombo, a stretch of Argentine coast that serves as their largest breeding site.

Boersma and her colleagues combed through 28 years’ worth of penguin data to search for signs that natural selection  –  one of the main drivers of evolution  –  may be acting on certain penguin traits. As they report in a paper published on 21 September in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, selection is indeed at work at Punta Tombo.

21 September 2016

Research finds Antarctic penguins infected with avian influenza viruses

ANTARCTICA – An Australian researcher has found a new avian influenza virus in Antarctica, causing concern viruses could be reaching the continent more often than previously thought, potentially having implications for the health of the unique species of birdlife.

Associate Professor Aeron Hurt from the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute) – a joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital – travelled to Antarctica together with collaborators to survey penguins and other birds between 2013 and 2015.

In 2013, Associate Professor Hurt discovered a particularly unusual avian influenza strain in the penguin populations, which had evolved over many years to be substantially different to any other avian influenza viruses around the world.

In this most recent project, two viruses were identified; the first was very similar to the one discovered in 2013, but the second was similar to a North American strain, highlighting it had only been recently introduced to the region.