FAU researcher works to save endangered penguins

Adam Schaefer has contributed to the rehabilitation of the birds in South Africa.


A pair of African penguins on a South African beach. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Nicole Pujazon, Contributing Writer

The African penguin is yet another endangered animal whose population is decreasing at a rapid speed — but one FAU researcher hopes to make a difference.

Adam Schaefer, an epidemiologist at FAU’s Harbor Branch, was called by experts at the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to determine better ways to rehabilitate the penguins they bring into their centers.

“They reached out to me through a collaborator when they were actually looking for someone with my skill set, which is very unique,” Schaefer said. “There aren’t many wildlife epidemiologists in the world.” An epidemiologist studies the patterns and causes of disease.

SANCCOB aims to rehabilitate injured and sick penguins at their centers in South Africa. Once the birds are admitted to one of the facilities, they are each provided with specific feeding, swimming, medication and treatment schedules.

Schaefer is studying these birds in an attempt to reduce their number of deaths in the facilities.

Some penguins that are admitted to the rehab centers die within the first 10 days, according to Schaefer. Many of the birds can be suffering from dehydration, hypothermia, anemia, extreme weight or muscle loss when they arrive.

Adam Schaefer is an epidemiologist at FAU’s Harbor Branch. Photo courtesy of Harbor Branch Epidemiology, Population Health & Pathology

“We need to figure out ways to maximize the effectiveness of some of the rehabilitation,” Schaefer said. “This makes it essential for the species to survive in the wild.”

About 75 to 80,000 African penguins are left in the wild, in comparison to the 150,000 that were counted in the 1950’s. In some colonies, the decline in population has reached as high as 80 percent. The penguins were put on the endangered list in 2010.

Oil spill contaminations, competition with commercial fisheries, climate change and a series of ongoing man-made threats have all contributed to the decline in the African penguin population.

Schaefer wants to make sure that the penguins are not only healthy enough for the rehab centers, but can also survive in the wild.

Nicole Pujazon is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet her @NicolePujazon.