An Unwanted First in Nasty Bird Flu

It's been found in sub-Antarctic animals for the first time
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 30, 2024 1:19 PM CST
Nasty Bird Flu Hits Antarctic Mammals
A colony of gentoo penguins are shown at Volunteer Point in East Falkland in the Falkland Islands.   (Getty Images/SteveAllenPhoto)

An unfortunate milestone has been logged in the continuing spread of a lethal form of bird flu, which has wreaked havoc from continent to continent since it first appeared in 2020. For the first time, the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) strain of H5N1 has been confirmed in sub-Antarctic mammals, specifically two of 35 gentoo penguins found dead in the Falkland Islands, per Reuters. The islands form part of the sub-Antarctic zone, along with South Georgia in the Southern Atlantic, where a suspected case of HPAI has been reported in king penguins. There have been fears of HPAI reaching Antarctica, where it could devastate colonies of birds, penguins, and seals, since it was detected at the tip of South America last year, per the New York Times.

"Given the dense breeding colonies of wildlife in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions, HPAI is expected to have devastating impacts on the wildlife and to lead to catastrophic breeding failure and mortality events," according to the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. Migrating birds are likely to have carried the virus from South America to South Georgia. The first case was discovered in brown skua populations on Bird Island, at the northwestern tip of the British Overseas Territory, on Oct. 23, according to the British Antarctic Survey. Since then, infections have been confirmed in kelp gulls, Antarctic terns, as well as in elephant and fur seals in South Georgia, per CNN.

Yet to confirm the virus is spreading among king penguins, South Georgia says it is monitoring the situation carefully. But experts note HPAI could already be spreading undetected further south on the Antarctic mainland, which serves as breeding ground for more than 100 million birds. The continent is also home to six seal species and 17 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, according to the OFFLU network of avian influenza experts. "If avian influenza continues to spread throughout the sub-Antarctic region this could significantly threaten the fragile ecosystem, and potentially put a number of very large populations of seabirds and sea mammals at risk," says Ian Brown, director of scientific services at the UK's Animal and Plant Health Agency. (More bird flu stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.