Tip of the iceberg: OU graduate’s study of penguins helps propel interest in animal welfare

Tip of the iceberg: OU graduate’s study of penguins helps propel interest in animal welfare
Amanda Lechnar with penguins
Oakland University alumna Amanda Lechnar spent six months studying the underwater behavior of gentoo penguins at the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center. (Photos courtesy Amanda Lechnar)

A six-month study by Oakland University alumna Amanda Lechnar on the underwater behavior of gentoo penguins at the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center is changing the way researchers are looking at how animals in captivity interact with each other and their environment.

“Identifying and following an individual penguin underwater is no easy task,” said Dr. Matthew Heintz, animal welfare research associate for the Detroit Zoological Society. “Amanda did an incredible job observing gentoo penguins to better understand their underwater behavior.

“The Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics has been studying penguin welfare for several years and Amanda’s research has been a great contribution to that body of knowledge,” Heintz added.

Amanda Lechnar penguin
A gentoo penguin


Lechnar, who grew up in Rochester, graduated from OU in April with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. Between September 2016 and February 2017, she spent more than 90 hours at the Detroit Zoo observing 10 gentoo penguins — five male and five female — as part of her Honors College thesis project.

“Through this project, I was able to explore something new, as other studies have shown that penguins are extremely difficult to observe under water, and the Polk Penguin Conservation Center offered a unique and perfect opportunity to do so,” Lechnar said. “I felt that keeping the focus of the project on animal welfare, and not just doing a project for the sake of science, was something important and is something that I'm grateful to have devoted so much of my time to.”

The gentoo penguins were monitored underwater using both live observation with focal animal sampling and automated temperature-depth recorders to better understand how the design of the habitat impacted the welfare of the penguins, as measured by use of space, and how often behaviors such as play and aggression occur. Key factors such as location and depth in the water, time of day, proximity to other penguins, and behavior of each penguin were also recorded.

“Amanda’s study represents one of the first to examine underwater behaviors of penguins in captivity,” said Dr. Keith Berven, an associate professor of biological sciences at Oakland University. “Her 90+ hours of observation led to her to be able to relate penguin behavior to the welfare of the penguins under the care of humans. She exhibited keen observation abilities and a patient dedication to the project which was reflected in the successful outcomes.”

Amanda Lechnar in Paris
Lechnar in Paris, France

To supplement the study of the gentoo penguins at the Detroit Zoo, a short case study — approximately nine hours over a two-day period — was completed in July at the Parc Zoologique de Paris (Paris Zoo) in France by observing how the Humboldt penguins there utilize their habitat and water space.

“Bringing the project to Paris was another incredible part of the study, as I was able to see the similarities and differences at the Paris Zoo after spending so much time at the Detroit Zoo, while learning a lot about the French culture and language in the process,” said Lechnar, who received a Thesis Grant from the university’s Honor College to help pay for expenses.

While in France, Lechnar stayed with a host family in Angers, a city located approximately 190 miles southwest of Paris.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Lechnar said. “I really enjoyed sampling all the different foods, especially the chocolate, but getting to know my host family was my absolute favorite thing to do there. They were familiar with American customs, but it was great to see how they lived differently. It was all very cool to me.”

After graduating from OU, Lechnar is spending the summer working at an animal hospital in Tennessee before returning in August to study veterinary medicine at Michigan State University.

“It’s something I’ve always known I wanted to do,” she said. “I love helping animals, and I love learning about what they’re seeing in their world. I feel like veterinarians have such a huge role in helping animals, and I’m so happy to be making that my role in life and to be able to make a difference.”



Video Description
Penguins swimming in exhibit at Detroit Zoo. Indistinguishable chatter.