Original Paper


, Volume 59, Issue 7, pp 593-602

First online:

Low MHC variation in the endangered Galápagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus)

  • Jennifer L. BollmerAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Missouri-St. Louis Email author 
  • , F. Hernán VargasAffiliated withCharles Darwin FoundationDepartment of Zoology, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford
  • , Patricia G. ParkerAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Missouri-St. Louis

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The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is one of the most polymorphic regions of the genome, likely due to balancing selection acting to maintain alleles over time. Lack of MHC variability has been attributed to factors such as genetic drift in small populations and relaxed selection pressure. The Galápagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), endemic to the Galápagos Islands, is the only penguin that occurs on the equator. It relies upon cold, nutrient-rich upwellings and experiences severe population declines when ocean temperatures rise during El Niño events. These bottlenecks, occurring in an already small population, have likely resulted in reduced genetic diversity in this species. In this study, we used MHC class II exon 2 sequence data from a DRB1-like gene to characterize the amount of genetic variation at the MHC in 30 Galápagos penguins, as well as one Magellanic penguin (S. magellanicus) and two king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus), and compared it to that in five other penguin species for which published data exist. We found that the Galápagos penguin had the lowest MHC diversity (as measured by number of polymorphic sites and average divergence among alleles) of the eight penguin species studied. A phylogenetic analysis showed that Galápagos penguin MHC sequences are most closely related to Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti) sequences, its putative sister species based on other loci. An excess of non-synonymous mutations and a pattern of trans-specific evolution in the neighbor-joining tree suggest that selection is acting on the penguin MHC.


Galápagos penguin Spheniscus mendiculus Major histocompatibility complex Genetic bottleneck Trans-species evolution