Bird flu found in penguin species sparks fear of spread to Antarctica

By Jake Spring and Gloria Dickie

(Reuters) – A deadly type of bird flu has been found in gentoo penguins for the first time, according to the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), stoking concern that the virus could spread to Antarctic penguin colonies.

Researchers found about 35 penguins dead in the Falkland Islands on Jan. 19. Samples taken from two of the dead penguins both came back positive for the H5N1 avian influenza virus, said Ralph Vanstreels, a veterinarian who works with SCAR.

The deaths confirm that gentoo penguins are susceptible to the highly lethal disease that has decimated bird populations across the world in recent months. However, gentoos rarely travel between the Falklands off the coast of Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula, which lies some 1,300 kilometres (807 miles) to the south.

That means traveling penguins are unlikely to drive the spread to the southern continent, said Vanstreels, a researcher affiliated with University of California-Davis.

“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.”

Researchers also found in nearby South Georgia a suspected case of bird flu in king penguins. Scientists are still waiting for test results to confirm the presence of H5N1, Vanstreels said.

Hundreds of thousands of penguins gather in tightly packed colonies on the Antarctic continent, 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 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.

(Reporting by Jake Spring and Gloria Dickie; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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