Fears for Antarctic penguins as new bird flu strain reaches frozen continent

Migratory birds that interact with infected poultry in North and South America blamed as scientists worry virus reaching Antarctica more often than thought

The discovery of a new strain of bird flu in Antarctic penguins has raised concerns the virus is reaching the frozen continent more often than previously thought, flown in by migratory birds.

Australian researchers helped uncover the new strain of avian influenza in the chinstrap penguin in 2015, finding striking similarities to a North American strain, which meant it had been introduced to Antarctica only recently.

The virus was first detected in Antarctica in 2013, but the discovery of the new strain has raised a red flag to the vulnerability of penguins to avian flu and its capacity to reach Antarctica.

Associate professor Aeron Hurt, of the Melbourne-based Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, said scientists had previously thought viruses rarely reached Antarctica.

What the most recent finding shows is that viruses do get down there more often than we thought and its a red flag towards the future, Hurt said on Tuesday.

Our concern with that is that there have been viruses over the last couple of years that have been quite deadly to certain types of birds.

Chinstrap
Bird flu hasnt made penguins ill, but the fact that it has arrived in Antarctica is of concern to scientists. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

Hurt said the unique strain of influenza found in 2013 was also detected the following year, which might mean it could survive underneath the ice during the winter, resurfacing in the summer months as migrating penguins returned.

Several migratory birds, including the Arctic tern and skua are thought to be the most likely culprits for delivering the viruses to Antarctica.

The birds can interact with poultry farms infected with avian influenza in North and South America before returning to Antarctica.

While the influenza hasnt made the penguins ill, the fact that the viruses have arrived in Antarctica worries scientists.

The impact of a pathogenic influenza virus, one that causes death or severe illness in birds, would have a really devastating impact, Hurt said.

Understanding how avian influenza reached Antarctica helped provide more insight into how the virus moved around the world, he said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/20/fears-for-antarctic-penguins-as-new-bird-flu-strain-reaches-frozen-continent