A deadly form of bird flu has been discovered in Antarctic penguins for the first time and scientists are raising the alarm about its potential impact on colonies. The following Cornell University wildlife experts are available to discuss:
Amandine Gamble, a professor in public and ecosystem health, has spent nearly a decade studying infectious diseases in polar wildlife, including endangered seabirds. Gamble says breeding season can bring hundreds of thousands of king penguins together, heightening the impact of a spreading virus.
“King penguins form immense colonies in which several hundreds of thousands of individuals can gather during the breeding season. South Georgia / Isla San Pedro harbors about half of the world population of king penguins. The spread of the virus within the population could have devastating consequences for this species, which already faces many threats, including changes in food availability as a result of climate change and food web alterations by fisheries.”
Krysten Schuler, a research professor in public and ecosystem health, studies infectious diseases in wildlife. She says H5N1 could have a devastating impact on Antarctic penguins and could also impact marine mammals on the continent.
“The recent detection of H5N1 in Antarctica is worrisome. There have been documented large-scale die-offs of colonial nesting seabirds, such as gentoo penguins in the Falkland Islands. Many seabird colonies already have declining populations. Elephant seals have also been dying by the thousands in Patagonia.
“If H5N1 is lethal to king penguins and arrives on the Antarctic mainland, it could have a devastating impact on the population because it is a novel virus and penguins are not likely to have any immunity. Similarly, the many marine mammals that inhabit the area could be impacted.”