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Pygoscelis papua
P. adeliae
Roberto NAJLE
, Hugo D. SOLANA
, Daniela BOTTINO
, Mariana A. JUÁRES
Melina MAUAD
and Diego MONTALTI*
2, 3
Laboratorio de Biología Celular y Molecular, Departamento de Ciencias Biológicas, Facultad de
Veterinarias, Universidad Nacional del Centro, B7000-Tandil, Argentina
Sección Ornitología, Museo de La Plata, Paseo del Bosque, B1900FWA-La Plata, Argentina
Departamento Biología Aves, Instituto Antártico Argentino, Cerrito 1248, C1010AAZ-Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Tel: +54 11 42757523. Fax: +54 11 48128169. *E-mail:
(Recibido junio 2006, aceptado octubre 2006)
Key words: biological markers, serum proteins, penguins, Antarctica,
Pygoscelis adeliae
Pygoscelis papua
Two common and widely used liquid fuels with hepatotoxic activity, and trimethyltin, a
compound with neurotoxic activity which is used in several industrial processes, were
tested for their toxicity in two species of
penguins. Gentoo penguins
were dosed with trimethyltin (TMT)(15 mg/kg) and Adelie penguins
P. adeliae
were dosed with fuel for air (JP1)(0.20 ml/kg) and land transport (Polar Diesel, PD)(0.20
ml/kg). We use the serum proteins as markers of contamination on Gentoo and Adelie
penguins. The following hematological parameters were measured: hemoglobin, hemato-
crit, glucose, total lipids, total proteins and enzymes (aspartate transaminase and alanine
transaminase). Normal hematological values obtained on all penguins are in agreement
with previously published data. All tested birds showed signifcant toxic changes being
seen clinically and by blood tests. No mortality was observed during the experiment.
ß globulin increased in Gentoo penguins treated with TMT, showing highly signifcant
diFFerences. α 1 and
α 2 globulin was Fusioned. There was a marked drop in total proteins
in Adelie penguins dosed with JP1. ß and γ globulin decreased signifcantly in Adelie
penguins exposed to Polar Diesel. This study show that serum proteins and enzymes
levels can be used as biological markers of contamination on penguins.
Palabras clave: marcadores biológicos, proteínas del suero, pingüinos, Antártida,
Pygoscelis adeliae
Pygoscelis papua
Dos combustibles líquidos comunes y ampliamente usados con actividad hepatotóxica y
trimetiltin, un compuesto con actividad neurotóxica, que son usados en varios procesos
industriales, fueron utilizados para probar su toxicidad en dos especies de pingüinos
pigoscélidos. Se administró a pingüinos papúa
Pygoscelis papua
Trimetiltin (TMT)(15
mg/kg) y a pingüinos adelia
P. adeliae
combustible de aeronaves (JP1)(0.20 ml/kg) y
combustible diesel (Polar Diesel, PD)(0.20 ml/kg). Se usaron proteínas séricas como
Rev. Int. Contam. Ambient. 22 (3) 107-112, 2006
R. Najle
et al.
marcadores de contaminación en pingüinos papúa y adelia. Los siguientes parámetros
hematológicos fueron medidos: hemoglobina, hematocrito, glucosa, lípidos totales,
proteínas totales y enzimas (AST, aspartato amino transferasa y ALT, alanina amino
transferasa). Los valores hematológicos normales obtenidos en todos los pingüinos
corresponden con los datos publicados previamente. Todas las aves tratadas mostraron
cambios signifcativos clínicos y/o hematológicos. No se observó mortandad durante el
experimento. Los valores de ß globulina aumentaron en los pingüinos papúa tratados
con TMT mostrando diFerencias muy signifcativas, mientras α 1 y α 2 globulinas se
fusionaron. Hubo un marcado descenso en las proteínas totales de los pingüinos Adelia
tratados con JP1. En los pingüinos Adelia expuestos a PD, ß y γ globulinas disminuyeron
signifcativamente. Este estudio muestra que los niveles séricos de proteínas y enzimas
pueden ser utilizados como marcadores biológicos de contaminación en pingüinos.
More than 100 years of human occupation of
the Antarctic continent has inevitably led to anthro-
pogenic contamination in the environment, par-
ticularly in the ice-free areas. Such contamination
is concentrated around occupied and historic bases
and stations, as well as feld camps, where soils
are often visibly contaminated by fuel residues and
solid wastes, or stained by domestic waste water.
Internationally agreed protocols now prohibit the
discharge of any substance onto ice-free areas and
soils in Antarctica. However, prior to the implementa-
tion of the these protocols, there were less stringent
controls on the use, storage and disposal of potential
contaminants and less appreciation of the risk posed
to the environment by inappropriate use and disposal
of these substances. Even now, accidental spills,
particularly of fuel, continue to provide a source of
potential contamination and are, to some degree, an
inevitable consequence of human activity (Webster
et al
. 2003).
The Antarctic Continent constitutes an exceptional
environment in which communities of marine life are
becoming exposed to anthropogenic disturbances,
which are most serious in the areas of greatest human
activity (Harris 1991). In these regions, several birds
requiring rehabilitation have increased dramatically,
the commonest problems being related to oil spills
and starvation (Camphuysen and van Franeker 1992).
Antarctic birds, particularly penguins, are the most
important members of the Antarctic ecosystem, in
terms of total biomass and of interaction with the
environment (Woehler 1993).
Birds that are emplaced in higer trophic level of
the food chain show high levels of xenobiotics and
can be considered as bioindicators for monitoring the
environmental pollution (Thompson
et al.
1990), they
are relatively large and easily identifed. Baseline
surveys of concentration of pollutants in selected bird
species have been conducted in Antarctica (Tatton
and Ruzicka 1967, Szefer
et al.
1993, van Den Brink
and De Ruiter-Dijkman 1997).
Oil by-products, such as fuel for air and land trans-
port (JP1 and Polar Diesel), as well as organometal-
lic compounds (e.g. Trimethyltin: TMT, antifouling
paint), are used in Antarctica. Liquid fuels are used
in large quantities, usually stored in outdoor depots,
which may leak and contaminate the nearby sea and
ice. Trymethyltin has been characterized as a pow-
erful neurotoxin that also affects other organs and
tissues (feathers, muscles, liver, kidneys) (Kannan
et al.
1998) showing a high toxic effect to aquatic
life. One criterion for the persistence of organotins
in the environment is their lipophile character. The
accumulation of organometallic compounds by
higher trophic aquatic organisms proceeds through
either uptake from solution alone or of a combina-
tion with diet ingestion. Due to the extensive use in
numerous areas of human activity, large amounts
of organotin compounds have been introduced to
various ecosystems. Thus, signifcant concentrations
fo these pollutants and their metabolites have been
detected in all compartments mainly of the aquatic
environment: waters, suspended matters, sediment,
and biomass. Despite the high conentrations of toxic
organotin compounds found in aquatic invertebrates,
little is known about the accumulation and toxic ef-
fects in higher trophic vertebrate predators, which
may be exposed to these pollutants via food ingestion
(Hoch 2001).
The impact of a contaminating agent on an organ-
ism is re±ected through changes in physiological,
biochemical and cellular balances. The effects of
toxic substances can be measured as disturbances at
different levels of functional complexity, depending
on the toxin (Larsson
et al.
A variety of technical approaches have been ap-
plied in pollution biomonitoring programs in order to
estimate the bioavailable fraction of toxic substances,
which could be used as baseline levels to monitory
changes in the Antarctic ecosystem.
Considering that the levels of pollutants in birds
exposed to a polluted aquatic medium is the result
of both its accumulation from food and from water,
the aim of this study was to use the serum proteins
as biological indicators of environmental contamina-
tion. For this purpose Gentoo and Adelie penguins
were used.
Hematological parameters were measured in
samples from adult Gentoo
Pygoscelis papua
P. adeliae
penguins. Blood samples were
collected from Gentoo (n= 6, mean body weight
5215±134 g) and Adelie (n= 9, mean body weight
4956±123 g) penguins at Potter peninsula (62°14’S
58°38’W) King George Island, South Shetland Is-
lands, Antarctica, at the end of austral summer 1993,
on which there is an active reproductive colony of
penguins: Adelie (number of pairs NP= 14,554),
Gentoo (NP= 2,325) and Chinstrap (
P. antarctica
NP= 265)(Aguirre 1995).
Doses of potentially toxic substances, which are
used and stored at Antarctic stations, were given to
Gentoo and Adelie penguins to assess hematologi-
cal changes. The penguins were kept in individual
cages, in good weather conditions and with ad libi-
tum availability of fresh water (snow). They were
distributed in fve groups oF 3 penguins each: two
intact control (Gentoo n= 3, Adelie n= 3) and three
groups of individuals of which were given pollutants
(Gentoo with TMT n= 3, Adelie with JP1 n= 3, and
Adelie with Polar Diesel n= 3). The body weight of
the penguins was recorded.
The experiment was conducted under ethical
conditions. The protocol was approved by Instituto
Antártico Argentino ethics committee. All birds were
adult and were found in the beach of Potter Cove.
Sample collections were done after 12 hours without
food. They were handled very gently and as soon as
the sampling was fnished they were set Free. All the
penguins used in the experiments were banded and
released in good condition in the same place where
they were captured.
We measured proteins and enzymes activity.
Electrophoresis was done on polyacrylamide 5 %
native gels stained with Coomassie Blue and scanned
with a densitometer to determine concentrations of
the different protein fractions. Total proteins were
calculated with Rapid Lowry’s technique.
Serum enzymes, aspartate transaminase (AST)
and alanine transaminase (ALT) were quantifed by
kinetic technique. The enzymatic activity was cor-
rected by mg of protein determined by the Rapid
Lowry technique. Additionally, the following tests
were undertaken: hemoglobin, hematocrit, glucose
and total lipids. The hemoglobin level was deter-
mined by the cyanmethaemoglobin method and the
hematocrit value by the micromethod. All determina-
tions were done in triplicate. Results were expressed
as means ± S.D. Data were evaluated statistically by
one-way analysis of variance and Tukey test to assess
the differences of the means, which were accepted
as signifcant at p < 0.05.
Three Gentoo penguins were given a single dose
of 15 mg/kg body mass of trimethyltin (TMT). The
toxic substances were given orally via an sterile
plastic tube. Samples of blood were taken at 0, 17,
24 and 48 h from the commencement of the experi-
ment, and birds were examined every three hours.
Kerosene-based aviation fuel (JP1) was given orally
to three Adelie penguins (0.20 ml/kg), and Polar Diesel
(PD)(0.20 ml/kg) to the other three via an sterile plas-
tic tube. Blood samples were taken at 0, 24 and 48 h
(Szubartuwska and Gromysz-Kalkowska 1992).
The normal hematological values of two species
of penguins were calculated to determine the good
health of birds (
Table I
). Values obtained on all pen-
guins are in agreement with previously published data
(Milsom et al. 1973, Kostelecka-Myrcha and Myrcha
1980, Rosa
et al.
1993). No mortality was observed
during the experiment. The toxic substances used did
not affect the penguins body weight.
Gentoo Penguins dosed with TMT showed symp-
toms within 24 hours, mainly neurological ones
(diFfculty with balance and walking). Comparison
between the intoxicated animals and control birds 48 h
after the intoxication, revealed differences in several
estimates. In our experimental conditions serum pro-
teins values obtained on the 0 time are in agreement
with unpublished data from adults birds taken in the
same season (D. Montalti, unpublish data). There was
a signifcant increase in total protein From time 17 h
to 48 h, due mainly to a rise in betaglobulin; also the
α 1 globulin and 2 Fractions coalesced, due to that
reason, none of them were focus separated on the
next three samples. Prealbumin, albumin and gamma
R. Najle
et al.
globulin didn’t show signifcant diFFerences aFter the
intoxication. ß globulin increased during the experi-
ment showing highly signifcant diFFerences. α 1 and
α 2 globulin was amalgamated, there was no variation
in their percentage from the sample taking at the 17
h, until the end of the experiment (
Table II
Thus, on comparing control specimens with
intoxicated Gentoo penguins with TMT, highly sig-
nifcant diFFerences were Found in the serum enzymes
levels after 48 h (
Table II
Adelie penguins treated with JP1 remained in
apparently good health with no discernible signs or
symptoms. There was a marked drop in total pro-
teins, showing highly signifcant diFFerences aFter the
experiment. Prealbumin-albumin and alfa globulin
increased showing highly signifcant diFFerences at
24 h while there was no difference at 48 h, showing
the same concentration. On the other hand, ß and
γ globulin, Fell to halF their normal values in the
samples taken at 24 h, showing highly signifcant
difference and keeping their normal values in the
samples taken at 48 h (
Table III
No symptoms were observed in Adelie penguins
exposed to Polar Diesel. The biochemical changes
were similar to those seen with JP1, but were not so
marked. Total proteins had a signifcant decreased
at 24 h as well as 48 h. Prealbumin and albumin
showed no signifcant diFFerences aFter 48 h From
the intoxication. Alfa globulin increased and highly
signifcant diFFerences were Found. ß and γ globulin
decreased signifcantly in the two sampled periods
Table IV
The normal values quoted in this study are mostly
within the ranges published
for several penguin spe-
cies (Allison and Feeney 1968, Ghebremeskel
et al.
1991, Aguilera
et al.
1993, Rosa
et al.
1993, Ferrer
et al.
1994). Between Gentoo and Adelie penguins
no signifcant diFFerences were Found in the normal
values of hematological parameters, except in some
of them (e.g. concentration of glucose in Adelie
Total lipids
Total proteins
(g/100 mL)
Gentoo Penguin
17.9 ± 1.2
49.7 ± 5.3
2.7 ± 0.2
8.3 ±1.1
59.3 ± 5.2
2.3 ± 0.4 4.1 ± 1.1
Adelie Penguin
15.4 ± 1.8
45.9 ± 7.7
1.8 ± 0.1
6.9 ± 1.3
57.9 ± 3.2
2.0 ± 0.2 2.9 ± 0.4
Values expressed as mean ± S.D.
Pygoscelis papua
P. adeliae
0 hours
17 hours
24 hours
48 hours
Total proteins
59.3 ± 5.2
66.1* ± 3.3
68.8* ± 4.1
68.9* ± 2.7
7.6 ± 0.2
7.8 ± 0.3
7.8 ± 0.4
± 0.3
46.9 ± 1.3
46.8 ± 1.3
45.4 ± 1.4
± 2.1
18.8 ± 0.7
14.7 ± 0.4
29.9 ± 1.3
28.4 ± 0.9
± 1.6
12.0 ± 0.5
14.6* ± 1.2
16.4* ± 0.8
16.7* ± 1.3
2.3 ± 0.4
27.4** ± 2.7
4.3 ± 0.5
7.9** ± 0.3
Values express as mean ±S.D. of percentages of serum fractions ob-
tained by electrophoresis at different times post-dose. Values in the 0
h column are those obtained at 0 h of the experimental group (n= 3)
and those of the control group (n= 3) (each sample run was tripli-
cated).* Signifcantly diFFerent From control (p < 0.05). **Highly sig
nifcant diFFerences (p < 0.001).
goscelis papua
penguins was signifcantly lower than in Gentoo
penguin). The glycogenic mechanisms are likely to
be important, because of differences in their feeding
habits (Aguilera
et al.
1993). Gentoo penguins feed
inshore and are deep divers, and average body mass
is greater than that of the Adelie penguin (Trivelpiece
et al.
1987). According to Smith and Bush (1978)
total protein estimation is a valuable indicator of the
general nutritional state, with low protein suggesting
either malnutrition, bacterial or chemical toxaemia.
In our experiment, the protein levels increased in
Gentoo penguins treated with TMT (
Table II
), while
in the Adelie penguins dosed with JP1 and PD, the
serum proteins decreased showing highly signifcant
differences (
Tables III
Gentoo penguins dosed with TMT showed a
signifcant increase in protein levels in their blood,
due mainly to an increase in betaglobulin. One of the
functions of this fraction is excretion of toxins.
The Fusion oF α 1 and α 2 globulins suggests
hepatic shock as a result of ingestion of a potent
hepatotoxin. AST increase more than one order of
magnitud, while ALT rise around two times. This
variation, would be due to the hepatic alterations
produced by the dosed TMT.
The electrophoretic pattern of serum samples
from JP1-dosed penguins showed low levels of beta
and gamma globulin. In spite of this, the penguins
did not show clinical evidence of intoxication. How-
ever, these low globulin levels may lead to greater
susceptibility to concomitant diseases. Variations in
the normal pattern serum proteins, are indicative of
toxic provoked alterations.
The observed serum proteins and enzymes chang-
es would be indicative of hepatotoxic substances. In
our study, the hematological values changed due to
the pollutants administrated to the penguins.
A further posible explanation for the lack of cor-
relation between the degree of contamination and he-
matological values could be the bird’s capacity to carry
out a complete or partial regulation of pollutants.
Our fndings show that serum proteins and en
zymes levels can be used as biological markers of
contamination on several penguin species.
The study was supported by the Instituto Antártico
Argentino. We thank Lucas Marti for improving the
English text and Alfredo Salibián for comments of
the frst draFt oF the manuscript.
Time post-dose
Total proteins
albumin %
globulin %
59.2 ± 4.1
± 1.2
7.4 ± 0.4
55.7 ± 3.8
40.9* ± 2.0
59.9* ± 2.7
13.7* ± 0.8
26.4* ± 2.4
37.5* ± 1.3
60.6* ± 3.7
13.4* ± 0.5
26.0* ± 2.1
Pygoscelis adeliae
Values expressed as mean ±S.D. of percentages of serum fractions obtained by electro-
phoresis at 0 time (n= 3) and times post-dose (n= 3) (each sample run was triplicated).
* Signifcantly diFFerent From control (p < 0.05).
Time post-dose
Total proteins Prealbumin
albumin %
globulin %
58.3 ± 2.4
40.3 ± 2.7
9.4 ± 1.8 50.3 ± 0.8
53.3* ± 1.9
41.2 ± 4.8 13.4* ± 1.3 45.4* ± 2.1
47.8* ± 0.7
43.6 ± 3.1 18.1* ± 1.0 38.3* ± 1.5
Values expressed as mean ±S.D. of percentages of serum fractions ob-
tained by electrophoresis at 0 time (n= 3) and times post-dose (n= 3)
(each sample run was triplicated). * Signifcantly diFFerent From control
(p < 0.05)
Pygoscelis adeliae
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