First penguins die in Antarctic of deadly H5N1 bird flu strain | Antarctica

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At least one king penguin is suspected to have died from bird flu in the Antarctic. If confirmed, it will be the first of the species killed by the highly contagious H5N1 virus in the wild.

Researchers have previously raised alarm about “one of the largest ecological disasters of modern times” if bird flu reached remote Antarctic penguin populations. The birds are currently clustering together for breeding season, meaning the disease could rip through entire colonies if it continues to spread through the region.

King penguins are the world’s second-largest penguin, at about 3ft tall, and can live for more than 20 years in the wild. The suspected case was recorded on South Georgia island in the Antarctic region, according to the latest update from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (Scar). A gentoo penguin was also suspected to have died from H5N1 at the same location.

Quick Guide

What is bird flu?


What is H5N1, the deadly strain of bird flu sweeping the world?

The current outbreak of bird flu started in Europe in 2021. By September 2022, H5N1 had been recorded in 63 wild bird species across 37 countries, according to an avian influenza overview published by the European Food Safety Authority. It hits seabirds particularly hard because they sit so close together during the breeding season: some colonies experience losses of 50% to 60%.

Then it crossed the Atlantic, with the first US case recorded in an American wigeon duck found in South Carolina in January 2022. By November it had reached South America. More than 40% of all Peruvian pelicans died over a period of a few weeks in early 2023.

Working out how many wild birds have died is difficult because so many carcasses are never found or counted. Researchers say it may be in the millions.

Does it affect other species?

The H5N1 virus has multiple genes that can switch and evolve together to spread the virus quickly into a wide range of species. The death of an estimated 20,000 sea lions in Chile and Peru shows that this is a disease that also kills mammals en masse. Black bears, brown bears and polar bears have also been killed.

How did it reach the Antarctic, and what will happen next?

The spread of this disease is facilitated by the migration routes of wild birds. It took just three months to spread almost 4,000 miles down South America, and it was seen as inevitable it would at some point reach the Antarctic.

It was first reported in the region in October 2023 among brown skua on Bird Island, off South Georgia. Since then it has spread into elephant seals, fur seals and kelp gulls. Most recently, it has been recorded in Antarctic penguin populations too.

So far there are no recorded cases on the Antarctic mainland, although researchers expect that to happen in the coming months. This latest H5N1 virus is yet to be reported in Oceania.

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Separately, at least one gentoo penguin has been confirmed to have died from H5N1 on the Falkland Islands – 900 miles (1,500km) west of South Georgia – with more than 20 chicks either dead or also showing symptoms. Since H5N1 arrived in the Antarctic, there have been mass deaths of elephant seals as well as increased deaths of fur seals, kelp gulls and brown skua in the region.

A scientist testing seals for bird flu on the island of South Georgia. The virus has been found in elephant and fur seals in the Antarctic region. Photograph: Dr Marco Falchieri/Apha/PA

Previous outbreaks in South Africa, Chile and Argentina show penguins are susceptible to the disease. Since it arrived in South America, more than 500,000 seabirds have died of it, with penguins, pelicans and boobies among those most heavily affected.

Ed Hutchinson, a molecular virologist at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, said: “The arrival of this H5N1 virus in the Antarctic towards the end of last year rang alarm bells because of the risk it posed to wildlife in this fragile ecosystem. And while it is very sad to hear reports of penguins dying … it is unfortunately not at all surprising.”

Diana Bell, emeritus professor of conservation biology at the University of East Anglia, said she had feared something like this would happen. “I’m just devastated, really – as will everybody who cares about penguins and the Antarctic … Given their colonial social organisation, you’d just wonder how quickly it would go through the colonies.”

So far, there are no recorded cases on the Antarctic mainland, according to Scar mapping data, but this could be because there are so few people present to record possible fatalities. Avian flu adds to the pressures already faced in these pristine polar ecosystems – a study in 2018 warned that the climate crisis and overfishing meant Antarctica’s king penguins “could disappear” by the end of the century.

The disease is also ripping through wildlife populations in the Arctic. In December, it was confirmed that for the first time a polar bear had died of H5N1. As with penguins, it is possible that more bears have died unnoticed as they tend to live in remote places with few people.

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