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20 December 2018
Class of 2018: Patrick Siyambulela Mafunda On Saving The African Penguin - And The Sperm That Makes It Possible

(Published 20 December 2018)

For his thesis, Patrick Siyambulela Mafunda endured hours of pinching, screaming and biting to collect penguin sperm - all in the interest of investigating the reproductive biology of the African species to ensure its longevity.

“The African penguin is Africa’s only penguin species - and it’s listed as an endangered species. So if we don’t come up with good plans to conserve these animals, they’ll be extinct soon. While there have been a lot of conservation studies done on the species, there haven’t been any on its reproductive biology. We need to understand that if we’re going to help preserve the species - and especially if we want to do in vitro fertilisation in the long run,” says the Medical Biosciences PhD graduate from the tiny town of Matatiele in the Eastern Cape.

The penguins generally have a short breeding season from January to February, and a longer breeding season from June to November. Therefore, collecting semen - by using a special abdominal massage technique - outside of breeding season was difficult for Mafunda. It doesn’t help that the birds became very aggressive and pinch and bite, especially if they are not habituated to human contact.

“We need to know when they breed, when to collect semen, and find out a way to preserve semen, to create a biobank - and that wasn’t easy,” Patrick notes. “So that is why we chose this topic.”

He used homepen birds from SANCCOB and first investigated and described the histology and ultrastructural features of their testes and ovaries.

Second, the study concentrated on the quality assessment of semen and the physiology of the sperm, including pilot studies on sperm cryopreservation for future inseminations - all of which involved the collection difficulties as well as long hours in the lab.

Finally, hormonal profiles for the main reproductive steroids were established using monthly blood samples - “Just a little, from the foot of the penguin”. Patrick also gathered fresh fecal samples, and that involved waiting for the penguin to ‘go’ and grabbing it as quickly as possible.

“There was so little information available for the African penguin for so long,” he says, “and through the results of my study, it gives me a great honour to say that we have managed to provide such information, which has also opened other areas of further research interest.”

Because these are endangered species, ethics clearance took a long time.

In addition, there was the girlfriend issue. When a penguin started to mate, it would reject a human handler and that meant no more sperm samples.

Another big challenge was the Fees Must Fall protests. Mafunda had to collect the semen (at the Two Oceans Aquarium) and analyse it at the lab at UWC on the very same day - and that was difficult when campus was shut down due to protest activity.

“For two years Fees Must Fall action would occur at the same time as the penguin breeding season, making it very difficult to get my work done,” Patrick explains. “But luckily I collected all the samples I needed in the end.”

That’s a problem future researchers won’t have to worry about, because part of his thesis involved devising a means of cryopreservation for the species’ sperm.

“It took a while, but we managed to design a protocol to try to preserve African penguin sperm,” he says proudly. “And that will play a big role in trying to come up with technologies that can assist in the preservation of this bird.”

The next step? In vitro fertilisation, naturally.

“It’s never been done - not in the African penguin, at least. But that’s a challenge I’d love to tackle.”

Helping penguins reproduce was something he never imagined doing as a child growing up in Matatiele, where his mother still lives.

“It is a great honour to have worked on a project that could change the world,” he says. “But I know it’s not going to come overnight. It’s going to take a lot of work - and that’s okay. A worthy dream is not achieved in a day, after all.”