Brace yourself folks this is not good news. King and gentoo penguins on islands between the Antarctic mainland and South America have been found dead from bird flu for the first time. Bird flu has been spreading across the globe, even causing the death of a polar bear in Alaska, and has now been reported to have reached the penguin colonies of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic with potentially devastating consequences.
The disease reached the isolated bird populations of the Antarctic region for the first time in October 2023 causing the deaths of brown skua (Stercorarius antarcticus). Now, new reports from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) show that the first penguin lives have been lost. At least one king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) is suspected to have died in Fortuna Bay on the northeast coast of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
On Sea Lion Island the disease has also been detected in two gentoo penguin chicks (Pygoscelis papua) that were tested after being found dead. Thirty-five further adults and chicks were also reported to be either symptomatic or dead according to the Falklands Islands Government website.
SCAR reports that more than 500,000 thousand seabirds have died of the disease in South America with the migratory birds from South America likely spreading the disease further south.
"There are over 200 chicks dead alongside a handful of adults," government spokesperson Sally Heathman told Reuters. The Falkland Islands lie roughly 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from the top of the Antarctic mainland and penguins aren't believed to travel these distances.
"The arrival of this H5N1 virus in the Antarctic towards the end of last year rang alarm bells because of the risk it posed to wildlife in this fragile ecosystem. And while it is very sad to hear reports of penguins dying … it is unfortunately not at all surprising,” Ed Hutchinson, a molecular virologist at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research told the Guardian.
As it stands the disease has not yet reached the Antarctic mainland. A map on the SCAR website shows the hotspots where the disease has currently been found. It's possible that since these birds live in such a remote area the disease has already reached them and is yet to be discovered, in a similar manner to the discovery of the polar bear death in Alaska earlier this year. Since penguins cluster together for the breeding season, if the disease reaches the mainland it could have the potential to wipe out many more.