First penguins die in Antarctica from the deadly H5N1 bird flu

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

Researchers have raised the alarm earlier about “one of the greatest ecological disasters of modern times” if bird flu were to reach remote Antarctic penguin populations. The birds are currently gathering together for the breeding season, meaning the disease could wipe out entire colonies if it continues to spread through the region.

King penguins are the second largest penguin in the world, about 1 meter tall, and can live more than 20 years in the wild. The suspected case was registered on the island of South Georgia in the Antarctic region, according to the latest update from the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (Scar). It was suspected that a gentoo penguin had also died from H5N1 at the same location.

In addition, at least one gentoo penguin has been confirmed to have died from H5N1 in the Falkland Islands – 1,500 kilometers west of South Georgia – with more than 20 chicks dead or also showing symptoms. Since H5N1 arrived in Antarctica, there have been mass deaths of elephant seals in the region, as well as an increase in deaths of fur seals, kelp gulls and brown skuas.

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

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

Ed Hutchinson, a molecular virologist at the MRC-University of Glasgow Center for Virus Research, said: “The arrival of this H5N1 virus in Antarctica late last year raised alarm bells because of the risk it posed to wildlife in this sensitive area. ecosystem. And while it is very sad to hear that penguins are dying, it is unfortunately not surprising at all.”

Diana Bell, emeritus professor of conservation biology at the University of East Anglia, said she feared something like this would happen. “I am absolutely devastated – as is anyone who cares about penguins and Antarctica… Given their colonial social organization, you would wonder how quickly this would move through the colonies.”

According to Scar’s mapping data, no cases have been recorded on the Antarctic mainland so far, but this could be because there are so few people present to record possible fatalities. Bird flu is adding to the pressures these pristine Arctic ecosystems are already facing – a 2018 study warned that the climate crisis and overfishing could cause Antarctica’s king penguins to ‘vanish’ by the end of the century.

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

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