The acquainted black-and-white birds are going through quite a few threats, together with local weather change, air pollution and business fishing. Three Antarctic penguin species — emperor penguins, southern rockhopper penguins and macaroni penguins — are listed as weak or close to threatened.

Earlier than H5N1 arrived within the Antarctic area final fall, extremely pathogenic chicken flu viruses had by no means been documented within the space earlier than. That signifies that the penguins are more likely to have little current immunity. And since they breed in massive, crowded colonies, as soon as one penguin is contaminated, the virus might unfold quickly, inflicting mass mortalities. (Because the virus unfold by South America final 12 months, Chile reported the deaths of 1000’s of Humboldt penguins.)

The extent of the virus’s unfold in Antarctic penguin populations stays unclear, and the king penguin circumstances haven’t but been confirmed.

“We have now no conclusive proof that king penguin populations in South Georgia have been impacted by the virus,” Laura Willis, the chief government of the federal government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, mentioned in an e-mail. “We’re monitoring the state of affairs throughout the islands and apply a precautionary strategy, which incorporates closing some websites to permit additional investigations to happen.”

The virus, which first emerged in 2020, has taken an unprecedented toll on wild birds and mammals. After the virus was detected on the tip of South America final 12 months, OFFLU, a worldwide community of flu consultants, warned that the pathogen might unfold to Antarctica subsequent.

The Antarctic area supplies crucial breeding territory for greater than 100 million birds in addition to seals, sea lions and different marine mammals. If the virus arrived within the area, its influence on these animals “might be immense,” OFFLU mentioned in an announcement final August.

Simply two months later, the virus was detected in brown skuas in South Georgia, the primary circumstances within the area. Since then, infections have been confirmed in quite a few different chicken species, in addition to in elephant and fur seals. These marine mammals additionally breed in massive colonies, they usually suffered main losses because the virus unfold by South America, the place tens of 1000’s of seals and sea lions had been reported lifeless. Scientists fear that the identical destiny might befall Antarctica’s seals because the virus spreads.

Infections haven’t but been reported on the Antarctic mainland, though consultants have mentioned that the virus might already be spreading there undetected.

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