Penguin Paternity: UVU students and faculty are helping to change the way penguin populations at zoos and aquariums are managed


Penguins have long been thought to be monogamous, but as it turns out, sometimes they’re not. It’s not a chorus of “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” but it is important information to keep the worldwide population of penguins thriving into the future.

That’s according to the surprising results of Utah Valley University research on gentoo penguins, which could impact their care for decades to come. Steve Vogel, director of zoological operations at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Draper, Utah, says it was a once- or twice-in-a-career discovery.

“Am I excited? Oh my goodness, I am,” Vogel says. “I have been 30 years in the field and this is the first time I have been involved in something like this.”

As with humans, penguins can pass on health concerns if they mate with one who is closely related to them. Being aware of those actual relationships, zoologists can help ensure the wellness of their charges. The animals with more diverse parentage are more resistant to disease and changes in the environment.

Vogel is not only excited about the discovery, but by the UVU students and faculty involved in it.

“When you are involved with bigger schools, you are dealing with post-docs all the time,” he says. “I thought it was so cool that we were working with undergraduate students, ironing out all these details with folks who wouldn’t have gotten this opportunity otherwise. It was really cool that they were involved all the way through. It was great to see their faces as they were involved in the physicals, being part of the sample collection, and more.”

Vogel’s not alone in his excitement about the findings. Eric Domyan, an assistant professor of biology at UVU, oversaw the actual genetic testing of the penguins.

“Talking to Eric was just lots of fun,” Vogel says. “He was excited about the students’ involvement with things that had never been done before.”

Photo by Savanna Richardson


The research showed that sometimes those penguins who performed the duties as dads weren’t actually the genetic parents of the chicks. The findings drew attention from zoos and aquariums across the nation and from national publications including The New York Times. Professional interest remains and is expected to increase.

“The way to move forward is to start presenting this paper to the zoo and aquarium fields at large and get the idea out there, so that people who do have penguin colonies like this will think about it,” Vogel says. “It is going to take us years. It will be baby steps until we get there. We see the potential benefit down the road.”

“There are groups of people from other institutions who work on the traits and genetics,” he says. “This quite frankly could change the way these populations are managed.”

Until the UVU research uncovered the unexpected relationships, the staff members of zoos and aquariums were simply watching the behavior of penguins to determine which ones were related.

“Our study found that isn’t entirely accurate,” Domyan says. “Some of them were reproducing with others. The records aren’t as accurate as you would like them to be.”

He explains that most animals who give a lot of parental care to their offspring have monogamous relationships. The UVU researchers had to sequence almost 200,000 locations in the penguin genome and identify 38,000 differences that were used to determine the relationships. The research uncovered the fact that infidelity does occur, and that chicks are sired by those other than the ones who serve as social fathers, Domyan says.

The scientific community is already showing interest. So far, Domyan has received DNA samples from a facility in Texas, and his students have started analysis on its penguins. Domyan anticipates being asked to do more research. “The staff at Loveland has been very active trying to contact these other institutions, and we expect to hear from some of them,” he says.

The relationship between UVU and the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium is expected to continue.

“Each year they have several more penguin babies,” Domyan says. “We would continue to test the babies born there.”

Based on the results at Loveland so far, Vogel says he will have to start sending some of his penguins out to other zoos and aquariums for breeding, in order to maintain healthy penguin populations.

Photo by Savanna Richardson


Christian Burrell, Loveland’s director of education, has been with the institution since the day it opened its Draper location in March 2014. An alumnus of UVU, he had previously been a school teacher. When he was at UVU, he had been a teaching assistant for Daniel Horns, associate dean of the College of Science.

“We stayed in contact even after I was teaching in public school,” Burrell says. “Dr. Horns and I spent a lot of time discussing educational opportunities. At Loveland, we wanted to partner with local universities, so it was a good fit to go with UVU.”

They started by brainstorming, settling on the penguin paternity project. After determining the exact scope of the work they wanted to do, they began the testing. Burrell says the aquarium regularly does wellness checks on the animals. For the penguins, that included blood samples, some of which came to UVU and Domyan’s group.

“They were able to conduct the sequencing that had never been done before,” Burrell says. “It was breaking ground in a lot of ways.”

Observation techniques suggested a male penguin named Gossamer was the father of chicks Poppy and Scamper, as he had been caring for them during the 90-day period before they left the nest.

“In the penguin’s home, the chick will stay right there by the nest until it is done fledging,” Burrell says.

Testing the DNA, however, indicated a male named Roto was the chicks’ biological father, and he had fathered three other chicks at the aquarium.

Burrell says Loveland plans to continue the project.

“Every time we have chicks born within this population, we hope to have Eric test those and verify the paternal relationships,” he says. “I want to ensure that every chick is genetically healthy to maintain a sustainable population.”
Not only is it good for the penguins, but the penguins are good for the public, he says.
“People really enjoy learning about these animals as individuals,” he says. “People develop connections with a lot of these animals and like learning about their lives.”

Photo by Savanna Richardson


Two UVU students were involved in the engaged learning research project. Lauren Lee, a junior studying biotechnology, and Nathan Tirrell, who recently graduated and is planning on becoming a physician’s assistant, helped with the time-consuming effort. They both expressed appreciation and enthusiasm for the project.

“The penguin paternity project was an absolute blast from start to finish,” Lee says. “I learned valuable hands-on lab experience and data analysis skills that have helped to prepare me for a career in biotechnology. It also gave me the chance to develop a sense of professionalism in academic research. It was fun and inspiring being part of something bigger, and it’s gotten me one step closer to achieving my goal of one day working on projects that will help the lives of others.”

Tirrell says it was important to keep a focus on the full scope of the project, even though it was easy to get caught up in the everyday work.

“Even with those extended hours in the lab, I never felt that I lost my enthusiasm for the project,” he says. “The fact that we were able to accomplish something not yet done makes that effort even sweeter. I did not fully appreciate the uniqueness of the project until we were nearing the end, and we were writing our paper. It was then that I realized we had accomplished a new method of doing something, and it had worked. What an experience to know that you’ve done something no one else has.”

“I’m so glad I had the opportunity to work on this penguin project and that I was able to personally gain so much from it,” he adds. “The groundbreaking nature is a plus, but the real value has come from having a mentor who spent time involving his students, and letting us gain knowledge and experience from failure so that we appreciated the effort and savor of success.”

People really enjoy learning about these animals as individuals.