All 10 Humboldt penguins at Exmoor Zoo in Devon, UK, have died as a result of a sudden outbreak of avian malaria. The deaths all occurred within nine days of each other, although zoo officials waited a full two weeks before announcing the tragedy as they struggled to come to terms with what had happened.
In a statement on its Facebook page, the zoo explained that avian malaria is harmless to most of the wild birds that carry it – as well as to humans – but is deadly to penguins as they come from regions where the pathogen does not occur, and have therefore not built up any immunity to it. As a result, they were unable to fend off the disease after contracting it from mosquitos that had previously fed on other infected birds.
Danny Reynolds, who manages Exmoor Zoo’s Living Collection, explained that “the protozoan pathogen cannot be easily identified in the blood of the penguins and dies very quickly so it cannot be seen with blood samples. Unfortunately, all drugs given from pathological reports had no effect and it is now known that once the malaria is contracted even the anti-malarial drugs cannot help the infected bird but the drugs can stop other penguins from contracting the disease.”
Officials at the zoo say they are now contemplating whether or not to initiate a new penguin colony, as while outbreaks of avian malaria can be few and far between, there is never any guarantee that it won’t happen again in the near future. The chances of this happening will depend on which migratory wild birds happen to have picked up the disease on their travels immediately before passing through Exmoor.
The zoo’s statement signs off with a poignant farewell to the fallen penguins: “Perhaps this is the time to say goodbye to some of the individuals we have looked after (some for 23 years or more); – Buster, Newquay, Ludo, Percy, Lemmy, Truddle, Owlie, Blossom, Friendly & Arthur.”
This year has been a bad one for UK-based penguins, with several other colonies also having been hit hard by avian malaria. For instance, it was announced last week that 25 penguins had died from the disease at Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire, which is located in the south-west of England, to the north of Devon.