UC Berkeley study finds insights regarding penguin origins, evolution

Photo of penguins
Lin Padgham/Creative Commons
A UC Berkeley study of penguin genomes found that penguins evolved near Australia and New Zealand instead of in Antarctica as scientists previously believed.

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A UC Berkeley study of the full genomes of 18 species of penguins published Monday provides new insights regarding their origins and evolution, and how they will deal with climate change.

The researchers began to sequence penguin genomes in 2018 in a collaboration between UC Berkeley professor Rauri Bowie and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile associate professor Juliana Vianna, with all the data analysis performed at UC Berkeley between 2018 and 2019. The study clarified three main debates regarding the evolution of penguins: their geographic origin, ancestry of species and the time of species diversification.

“We have established an international collaboration with researchers from different countries to fully understand the evolution of this group across their entire distribution, which spans the southern oceans at the bottom of the world,” Vianna said in an email.

The genomic information of the different penguin species was used to trace back the penguins’ evolutionary history and species diversification over the millennia.

Using this data and ecological niche modeling, the study found that penguins evolved near Australia and New Zealand about 22 million years ago instead of in Antarctica as scientists previously believed.

Vianna noted that there was considerable hybridization among penguin species, including macaroni and rockhopper penguins.

The study showed that penguins were able to evolve to adapt to very different thermal environments over a long period of geological time. These range from 9 degrees Celsius around Australia and New Zealand and negative temperatures in Antarctica, to warm temperatures in the Galápagos Islands.

Other adaptations have allowed penguins to dive deep like many other marine animals.

The study also found that it is unlikely that locally adapted species will be able to keep up with today’s “rapid climate change,” Vianna added.

“Marine species may be more vulnerable to global warming than terrestrial species,” Vianna said in the email. “Indeed, several species have been impacted by climate changes now.”

Vianna added that the Adélie and chinstrap penguin populations are decreasing rapidly around the Antarctic Peninsula.

Contact Aryia Dattamajumdar at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AryiaDm.