Bird flu poses threat to penguins – scientists

Scientists are issuing warnings about new threats to penguins on Antarctica due to diseases transmitted by migratory birds. They have discovered a contemporary strain of bird flu in penguins residing on the snowy continent, although it does not appear to be causing illness among them.

Scientists warn of the threat of bird flu to penguins. Explore the potential implications discussed in this blog post.
Flu virus has been seen in several species of penguin.KIM STEELE/THINKSTOCK

Conservationists say penguins need better protection through monitoring for new diseases and safeguarding their breeding and fishing grounds.

Bird flu is an infectious disease of poultry and wild birds.

Scientists found an unusual strain of bird flu among penguins on Antarctica a few years ago.

A second strain has now been discovered, suggesting viruses are reaching the continent more often than previously thought.

Fragile Earth

“This is a concern because avian influenza viruses that can be deadly in many birds have recently circulated in North America,” said Dr Aeron Hurt of the Peter Doherty Institute in Melbourne, who visited the continent to survey penguins and other birds.

He stated that the discovered virus did not appear to induce any illness in the birds. However, the fact that it is present on the Antarctic Peninsula indicates the potential for more lethal viruses to also migrate to that region.

“The impact of a pathogenic influenza virus, one that causes death or severe illness in birds, would have a really devastating impact,” he added.

The Antarctic Peninsula is too far south to be part of the main flyways across the world for migratory birds.

However, a few birds do migrate there from North and South America.

Unique birdlife

Rory Crawford, seabird policy officer of the RSPB, said penguins were the second most threatened group of seabirds after albatrosses, so any new potential threats were of concern.

He emphasized the importance of making every effort to prevent future transmission and its potential impacts on the unique birdlife of Antarctica.

In addition, he called for an escalation of broader penguin conservation efforts to aid these imperiled birds. This includes the protection of breeding habitat, the identification and proper safeguarding of marine protected areas, and the implementation of suitable fisheries management practices.

Dr Derek Gatherer, of the University of Lancaster, said the findings suggested that the bird flu had originated in the northern hemisphere and entered Antarctica recently.

“Penguins are therefore under threat from highly pathogenic avian flu, despite their isolation,” he said.

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