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Deadly bird flu hits Antarctica for first time, threatening penguins

This highly contagious virus has led to the deaths of millions of birds worldwide due to its rapid spread.
Adelie penguins on an iceberg in Antarctica.
Posted at 6:14 PM, Feb 27, 2024

For the first time ever, a deadly strain of avian flu has been detected on the Antarctic mainland, raising concerns for the penguin colonies inhabiting the region.

According to a Spanish-led research team, the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAI) was identified on Feb. 24 in two samples taken from dead skua seabirds found by Argentine scientists near the Primavera Antarctic base.

“This discovery demonstrates for the first time that the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza virus has reached Antarctica despite the distance and natural barriers that separate it from other continents,” scientists from the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center of the Higher Council for Scientific Research stated in a press release

In the past year, the virus has been spreading across the world in both avian and mammals such as seals, polar bears and elephants. In late January, it was detected for the first time in Antarctic penguins found dead off the Falkland Islands coast — but not in the actual Antarctic territory. 

This highly contagious virus has led to the deaths of millions of birds worldwide due to its rapid spread. Scientists warn that it poses a significant threat to Antarctica's wildlife because the region's penguins, which haven't been exposed to the virus before, typically reside closely together in colonies, making it easier to spread to a higher number more quickly.

“You have these massive, densely packed together bird colonies and some of those megacharismatic, highly threatened species, which are all packed together down there,” Christian Walzer, a wildlife veterinarian and executive director of health at the Wildlife Conservation Society told the Scientific American. “If [a virus outbreak] does hit, the impacts will be potentially really devastating ... Entire populations may disappear ... This would be a catastrophe.”