24 Mar 2023

Protecting Antarctic penguins from bird flu

From Afternoons, 1:35 pm on 24 March 2023
Nesting Adelie Penguin

Nesting Adelie Penguin Photo: Craig Cary

Work is being done to put in place safeguards to protect Antarctic penguins from the current bird flu strain making its way around the world right now.

There are concerns that the unique colonies of penguins in Antarctica will be vulnerable to the H5N1 highly contagious avian influenza through migratory birds such as the skua.

Waikato University Professor Craig Cary has been leading the way in the fight to limit the potential damage the virus could inflict on already fragile colonies.

While bird flu has been mainly a northern hemisphere problem that has been around since 2004, it was now migrating south, he said.

In Aotearoa there has been a monitoring programme for it in place for some time.

"The recent models and the migration of this version of the avian flu to the south is now demonstrating that it may cross the Southern Ocean and enter into the Antarctic continent which would be potentially devastating for the penguin colonies down there."

Avian flu was spreading among several bird species but the main problem was with the water fowl and in particular, shoreline birds and birds that migrated a long distance such as the skua, petrels and terns that spent time in the Northern Hemisphere and then flew to the Southern Hemisphere and onto Antarctica.

"These are the ones that are probably the most problematic for us."

Professor Cary was alerted to the potential problem last July after reading a report from the science committee on Antarctic research working group that concluded avian flu might reach the Antarctic during the 2022-2023 season.

He alerted relevant groups both in New Zealand and the Antarctic because there are substantial penguin colonies in the Ross Sea region.

Adelie penguins

Adelie penguins Photo: Cultura/Brett Phibbs

As part of the officials' response, in November he travelled to the Antarctic and spent 10 days at the largest Adelie penguin colony so he could start a baseline study on whether bird flu had arrived.

"Right now it's moved down into Chile, we know it's in Australia, we also know it's in South Africa.

"I think it's just inevitable it will get down there."

Some vaccines were being used mostly in the poultry industry, others were being developed and these might help prevent the virus from spreading.

"Obviously administering them to a million birds is a huge task and I think that should be something that should be considered."

Prof Cary said while the African penguins (in South Africa) have been affected, there were no documented cases so far in the Adelie or Gentoo penguins in Antarctica.

"The potential is it would move to them just as it did for the African penguin."

The main form of transmission among Adelies would be their tendency to poo near their nests and their habit of walking through other Adelies' poo while going to feed.

"There's so many birds in these colonies. They're packed literally right next to each other, the chance of it spreading is quite high."

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A group of Adelie penguins. Photo: Supplied / Lloyd Spencer Davis

There had been major bird die-offs in northern England, he said, and the fear was that it would be repeated in the Antarctic.

"I think the majority of them would die. It depends upon how the spread occurs in the colony and when it occurs in the colony."

If they left the Antarctic it would lessen the virus' impact, but the worst scenario would be if the virus arrived while the birds were incubating their eggs then raising their chicks, and when the birds from the Northern Hemisphere were present.

That would be when the penguins were "in their densest and most vulnerable position".

Governments and the national Antarctic programmes needed to get together; otherwise, there was the potential to lose entire penguin colonies in one or two seasons.

That was why he pushed to get a baseline account of the current state of the colonies and monitoring would need to continue, he said.

More needed to be done but so far there had not been a co-ordinated effort on a response.