With climate change slowly ratcheting up, you’d think the penguins of Antarctica have enough on their plate already. Not content with this, though, it seems that they are also having to contend with another threat originating on the other side of the planet. Researchers have found that the black and white birds are being infected with bird flu, carried to the pristine ice fields by migrating birds.
It is not unusual to find that the penguins in Antarctica carry bird flu. In fact, in 2013 it was discovered that some populations had a strain of influenza distinct to the region, implying it had persisted there for a long period of time and evolved in sync. Now a new study has found not only that this initial strain of influenza has continued to persist in these penguins, suggesting that it can survive under the ice during the winter until the birds return in summer, but a new strain has appeared, more closely related to another found in domestic poultry in North America.
“This is a concern because avian influenza viruses that can be deadly in many birds have recently circulated in North America,” explains associate professor Aeron Hurt, from Melbourne-based Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, and co-author of the paper published in the Journal of Virology. “The virus that we discovered on this project does not seem to cause any illness in the birds, but the fact that it is down on the Antarctic Peninsula shows that there is potential for deadlier viruses to also travel down there.”
While the icy continent is out of the way for most migratory birds, there are a couple of suspects for who may be transferring the virus. The Arctic turn is known to have the longest migration of any animal, as it travels from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again each year, passing through the west coast of Africa, Europe, and North America, while the skua has also been implicated as a potential vector. Even though there have been no reported cases of the virus making the penguins ill so far, the fact that the transfer of influenza to the southern continent is seemingly so easy is of concern.
“Antarctica is a fragile environment and one where fairly unique species of birds live,” says Hurt. “The impact of a pathogenic influenza virus, one that causes death or severe illness in birds, would have a really devastating impact.” More needs to be done to understand just how interconnected seemingly distant and separate ecosystems are, and figuring out the best way to prevent wild birds from coming into contact with potentially infected poultry.