A pioneering Somerset veterinary hospital has performed the world’s first reported MRI scan of a Fairy Penguin to investigate a balance issue. 

Chaka, who lives at Sea Life Weymouth, became the first of his species to undergo the procedure at Linnaeus-owned Cave Veterinary Specialists near Wellington. 

The MRI scan showed no evidence of structural disease for Chaka who, apart from the occasional wobble, is otherwise healthy and lives a full and enriched life, feeding and interacting normally with his fellow penguins. 

Speaking about the procedure, Cave’s clinical anaesthetist Pippa Tucker said: “We perform MRI scans of dogs and cats on a daily basis but this is the first one we are aware of on this type of penguin.”

Chaka was presented with a history of ataxia,  particularly when coming out of the water and there was concern there was a central cause of this as other investigations, treatment trials and environmental optimisation had not resolved the issue. MRI was the imaging modality of choice for this.

The anaesthesia team of Pippa Tucker, Will McFadzean and Erica Daly started by gathering as much information from the available literature on anaesthesia of other species of penguins combined with their own knowledge and understanding of anaesthesia and physiology developed a plan which would be effective and safe for Chaka. Penguins have a number of anatomical and physiological features which were considered in advance of the procedure.  

These include a septum in their trachea which has the potential to be injured during intubation. They also have a unique counter-current mechanism in their feet, neck and wings designed to allow for the maintenance and dissipation of heat, depending on what is required.  

Chaka was given an intramuscular premedication to avoid stressing him, once sedated a cannula was placed in his metatarsal vein. Cave’s team was then able to induce general anaesthesia. 

Once Chaka was anaesthetised, the team at Cave then intubated his trachea and kept him anaesthetised during the MRI by giving him oxygen and anaesthetic agent, very similar to the regular process with dogs and cats. He was monitored under anaesthesia by Erica Daly, Pippa Tucker and Veterinary nurse, Stephanie Toogood. 

This is a significant advancement in veterinary knowledge of Fairy Penguins, as the MRI images can now be shared with other vets, zoos, aquariums and sanctuaries around the world that also look after Fairy Penguins. 

It’s hoped that the information could also be offered to support the conservation of the world’s wild population of Fairy Penguins. 

Kico Iraola, curator at SEA LIFE Weymouth, said: "This MRI scan is significant in enabling us to start to gather data about the skull and the bone structure for this species, as after comprehensive research, we could not find any historical MRI images for a Little Blue Penguin elsewhere.

"This first scan of a Fairy Penguin will therefore help to widen the knowledge of the species, for both us and others around the world, helping us ensure we’re providing the best possible care for our family of penguins.”

Pippa added: “Chaka recovered smoothly. He was hypothermic but forced warm air blankets were used to return him to normothermia. We did try to give him some fish but he wasn’t in the mood!”

Cave offers comprehensive, specialist-led services in anaesthesia, cardiology, dermatology, internal medicine, neurology and neurosurgery, oncology, orthopaedic surgery and soft tissue surgery.

For more information on Cave Veterinary Specialists, visit https://cave-vet-specialists.co.uk or search for Cave Veterinary Specialists on social media. 

To learn more about the penguin colony and to visit Chaka the penguin, as well as a colony of Humboldt penguins, please visit the SEA LIFE Weymouth website here: https://www.visitsealife.com/weymouth/ 

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