Until now, Antarctica, along with Australia and Oceania, was considered the last region on Earth to be spared the current bird flu outbreak. But there is now evidence of the pathogen in birds on the small island of Bird Island in the Southern Ocean, according to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Brown kraurs, also known as sub-Antarctic kraurs (Stercorarius antarcticus), which are part of the kraur family, are affected.
Marine biologist Ralph Sonntag of the conservation organization Pro Wildlife said about the evidence: “Bird flu could lead to an environmental disaster of the highest order in Antarctica.” Up to 100 million seabirds have their breeding grounds there, and five species of penguins such as Emperor and Adelie penguins are found only there. Seal species such as the Weddell seal and the leopard seal also live in the area.
Reports of sick and dead jays have been sampled and evaluated in Great Britain, according to the BAS. It is likely that birds returning from their migration to South America brought the virus. This continent, which was previously spared from waves of disease, is currently being severely affected.
BAS runs a research station on Bird Island. According to the researchers, colonies of various seabird species live on the island, including migratory black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses, giant petrels, as well as golden-crested penguins and gentoo penguins.
Early fall 2021 outbreak
The outbreak, caused by a variant of avian influenza of the H5N1 subtype, began in the fall of 2021. It led to the deaths of numerous seabirds – and to a lesser extent mammals – in the Northern Hemisphere, Southern Africa, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and South America. Since the end of last year, thousands of dead marine creatures have been found on the Pacific coast there, first in Peru and later also in Chile – such as pelicans, penguins, sea otters, seals and marine mammals.
Dead sea lions were discovered on the Atlantic coast of Uruguay and Argentina in the summer. A total of about 15,000 dead seals have been recorded in South America so far. According to experts, it is still unclear whether the virus has actually been transmitted between mammals. The pathogen is currently considered largely harmless to humans.
Europe continues to be severely affected
Europe, where the classic bird flu season is now approaching, is still suffering badly. At the end of September, the responsible Friedrich Loeffler Institute (FLI) wrote in a report including data through July/August that deaths in shorebird breeding colonies were occurring across Europe, “some of which have reached the level of local cluster deaths.” Gulls, terns and northern gannets were affected. Cats, foxes, martens, mink and seals also died.
Tim Harder, head of the Virus Diagnostics Institute at FLI in Greifswald, classifies bird species that have never been in contact with bird flu as particularly vulnerable. “We know that some penguin species are susceptible to the virus,” he said. “If viruses manage to infiltrate large numbers of Antarctic penguins from South America, one should expect serious consequences.”
Harder assumes that Australia and Oceania will not be spared either. “It’s only a matter of time.”
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