A highly lethal form of bird flu has been detected in Antarctic penguins for the first time. The virus, which is known as H5N1, was confirmed in a few gentoo penguins that were found dead in the Falkland Islands, according to the British territory’s Department of Agriculture. Another few dozen gentoo penguins were reported sick or dead at the same location.
At least one suspected case has also been reported in king penguins in South Georgia, another British territory, according to the Antarctic Wildlife Health Network, which is part of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.
Why It Matters: Penguins are already under pressure.
The familiar black-and-white birds are facing numerous threats, including climate change, pollution and commercial fishing. Three Antarctic penguin species — emperor penguins, southern rockhopper penguins and macaroni penguins — are listed as vulnerable or near threatened.
Before H5N1 arrived in the Antarctic region last fall, highly pathogenic bird flu viruses had never been documented in the area before. That means that the penguins are likely to have little existing immunity. And because they breed in large, crowded colonies, once one penguin is infected, the virus could spread rapidly, causing mass mortalities. (As the virus spread through South America last year, Chile reported the deaths of thousands of Humboldt penguins.)
The extent of the virus’s spread in Antarctic penguin populations remains unclear, and the king penguin cases have not yet been confirmed.
“We have no conclusive evidence that king penguin populations in South Georgia have been impacted by the virus,” Laura Willis, the chief executive of the government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, said in an email. “We are monitoring the situation across the islands and apply a precautionary approach, which includes closing some sites to allow further investigations to take place.”