Many species are currently undergoing drastic reductions in population size due to human activities. Such reductions, termed "population bottlenecks", subject populations to multiple hazards. These include both short-term demographic risks, such as a disease or natural disaster, and long term genetic effects of small size, like loss of variation due to inbreeding. The penguin genus Spheniscus is an appropriate system for studying the genetic effects of population bottlenecks because it comprises two endangered species of penguin that have undergone repeated bottleneck events (Galapagos Penguin, Humboldt Penguin), and two species that have not undergone these fluctuations (Magellanic Penguin, African Penguin). The bottlenecks are caused by both anthropogenic impacts and environmental changes during El Nino events, which can reduce populations by up to 77%. This project proposes to test bottleneck theories by comparing genetic variation using molecular genetic techniques. This research will not harm penguins; only a few drops of blood or one feather from each bird is sufficient.
An understanding of the effects of bottleneck events on small populations may be critical to their long-term survival. Genetic variation is necessary for future evolutionary potential and population persistence. This study will directly compare the genetic effects of population fluctuations to population stability using the penguin genus Spheniscus. The results may be of direct value to the conservation of many endangered species.