Bird flu found in penguins near Antarctica, 200 chicks dead

Penguins kids known as chicks

A deadly bird flu has been found in gentoo penguins near Antarctica for the first time, according to the Scientific committee on Antarctic research (SCAR). Samples of two of 35 dead penguins in Falkland Islands came back positive for H5N1 virus, a SCAR voterinarian said, “There are over 200 chicks dead alongside a handful of adults”, Falkland Islands government said.

The Falkland Islands government told Reuters that many more gentoos were dying under similar circumstances. As of Jan. 30, “there are over 200 chicks dead alongside a handful of adults”, said government spokesperson Sally Heathman.

The deaths confirm that gentoo penguins are susceptible to the lethal disease that has decimated bird populations across the world in recent months. However, gentoos rarely travel between the Falklands off Argentina’s coast and the Antarctic Peninsula, which lies some 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) to the south.

“The role that gentoo penguins could have, instead, is to serve as local reservoirs of infection,” he said. “That is, maintain a pool of susceptible hosts that never leaves the islands.” Heathman said the Falkland Islands government was also awaiting test results from rockhopper penguins and “preparing for a large-scale outbreak.”

Hundreds of thousands of penguins gather in tightly packed colonies on the Antarctic continent and nearby islands, which could enable the deadly virus to easily jump between individuals. While penguins may be charismatic, conservationists are more concerned about other species, Vanstreels said. Elephant seals and fur seals have died in larger numbers from bird flu in South Georgia, following mass casualties in those species in South America.

“This is especially concerning because South Georgia is home to 95 percent of the world’s population of Antarctic fur seals. If that population collapses, the species will be in a critical situation,” he said.

The Antarctic region provides critical breeding territory for more than 100 million birds as well as seals, sea lions and other marine mammals. If the virus arrived in the region, its impact on those animals “could be immense,” OFFLU said in a statement last August.

Just two months later, the virus was detected in brown skuas in South Georgia, the first cases in the region. Since then, infections have been confirmed in numerous other bird species, as well as in elephant and fur seals. These marine mammals also breed in large colonies, and they suffered major losses as the virus spread through South America, where tens of thousands of seals and sea lions were reported dead. Scientists worry that the same fate may befall Antarctica’s seals as the virus spreads.

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