In a first, bird flu reaches Antarctica, threatening to wipe out tons of penguins and other birds

Experts warn that if the virus reaches certain rare bird populations, "they are in threat of extinction"

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 24, 2023 2:33PM (EDT)

Gentoo Penguin and Skua on Cuverville Island in Antarctica (Getty Images/Mark Edward Harris)
Gentoo Penguin and Skua on Cuverville Island in Antarctica (Getty Images/Mark Edward Harris)

2023 has been a bad year for emperor penguins. In August, a study in the journal Communications Earth & Environment found that the loss of polar ice in Antarctica is likely to lead to a "catastrophic breeding failure" for penguins throughout Antarctica, eventually causing them to be unable to naturally sustain their own species by the end of the century. But a virus may get them first. A new report by the British Antarctic Survey confirms the existence of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) on Bird Island in Antarctica's South Georgia region — a discovery that has potentially devastating implications for local bird populations.

The British Antarctic Survey became aware of HPAI on Bird Island after they were informed that individuals in a bird species known as brown skua were displaying symptoms; some were dying. Test samples confirmed the presence of HPAI, with scientists speculating that it was spread from South America by birds returning from their migrations.

"The presence of HPAI could have serious implications for the Territories' abundant seabird colonies and [Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands] and British Antarctic Survey are working in partnerships to monitor the ongoing impacts," the scientists explain in their report.

“There are species on some of the Antarctic islands and sub-Antarctic islands that are unique to those islands, and only occur in small numbers, in hundreds or thousands,” Thijs Kuiken from Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study, told New Scientist. “If the virus reaches those populations, they are in threat of extinction.”

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