Hundreds of Animal Species Hit by 'Catastrophic' Flu Strain

Elephant seals, seabirds, and now a polar bear—could humans be hit hard next with H5N1?
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 16, 2024 9:56 AM CST
Hundreds of Animal Species Hit by 'Catastrophic' Flu Strain
Stock photo of elephant seals.   (Getty Images/Foto4440)

"It is catastrophic ... the largest die-off for the species, period." That's how Martin Mendez, a marine biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, describes to the Washington Post the fate of hundreds of elephant seals last fall in Argentina, found dead along the shore of the Valdes Peninsula. The Post notes that 17,000 elephant seal pups perished there in 2023, stricken by bird flu in an "unprecedented" wildlife pandemic that has afflicted more than 300 species of birds and animals. As humans dealt with the COVID pandemic over the past few years, wildlife has done the same with the H5N1 "panzootic," with millions of birds on US poultry farms among the casualties.

Other animals that have contracted H5N1 include red foxes, coyotes, tigers, lions, raccoons, and grizzly bears, though marine mammals seem to be the ones experiencing mass die-offs from it. The Post notes this particular influenza "raged through domestic and wild animal populations on every continent except Australia and Antarctica." Birds and mammals near Antarctica, however, have also been hit with H5N1: Reuters reports that fur and elephant seals on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, as well as a variety of local seabirds, have succumbed to the infectious disease there, which is especially worrisome. "Given Antarctica is such a unique and special biodiversity hotspot," this development "is sad and concerning," one scientist tells the news agency. Experts believe migratory birds from South America likely brought the flu to the southernmost tip of the world.

In Alaska, meanwhile, the first polar bear death from this strain of bird flu has been logged, reports Live Science. Scientists say the bear, found dead in the remote town of Utqiagvik in October, likely contracted the illness after feasting on birds that had it—and they think that more likely have the flu as well. "This is unlikely to be an isolated event," University of Saskatchewan professor Douglas Clark tells the outlet. What scientists are most concerned about, however, is the possibility of H5N1, first identified in China in 1996, eventually wreaking havoc among the human population. That type of incident doesn't seem imminent, but due to the sometimes unpredictable nature of such diseases, it remains a possibility. "Every year that this doesn't happen, we're being lucky," Mendez tells the Post. (More flu stories.)

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