A large number of elephant seals have died due to an outbreak of bird flu in the Antarctic.
The avian influenza is being transmitted in the Antarctic region, leading to the deaths of numerous elephant seals. There is concern that this virus, which easily spreads, could result in a major environmental catastrophe if it reaches the isolated penguin colonies.
The initial sighting of the virus was documented in brown skua on Bird Island, located off the coast of South Georgia. Subsequently, scientists and observers have observed significant mortality rates among elephant seals, as well as a rise in deaths among fur seals, kelp gulls, and brown skua at various other locations. The virus has also been confirmed 900 miles (1,500km) west of South Georgia among southern fulmar on the Falkland Islands.
According to Dr. Meagan Dewar, the chair of the Antarctic Wildlife Health Network, the state of southern elephant seals is alarming. She expressed worry about mass deaths occurring at certain locations, with numbers reaching into the hundreds. She also mentioned the possibility of avian influenza being the cause.
Tests have verified that bird flu has caused deaths at eight locations in Antarctica. There are 20 additional sites where animals have died and the disease is suspected, but confirmation from tests is still pending.
Experts have stated that several elephant seals have shown signs of avian influenza, including issues with breathing, coughing, and nasal mucus buildup. In birds, common symptoms include fatigue, muscle spasms, and the inability to fly.
Although several instances of seabirds have been verified, there are still some, such as the elephant seals, that are considered to be only suspected until the results from laboratory tests are received.
Currently, there have been no documented instances on the mainland of Antarctica, which is home to distinct ecosystems that are among the most secluded in the world. However, it is anticipated that the illness will reach the area in the next few months as birds migrate.
Dewar expressed his heartbreak over witnessing and documenting all the cases that are being reported.
As the breeding season begins, penguins are beginning to gather in groups, which puts them at a higher risk of vulnerability. Past incidents in South Africa, Chile, and Argentina have demonstrated their susceptibility to the illness.
According to a pre-print research paper from last month, if the virus were to result in widespread deaths among penguins, it could potentially lead to one of the most significant ecological disasters in recent history.
The Antarctic is home to numerous unique species, making the potential impact of the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the region uncertain.
The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research recently stated that due to the high concentration of breeding wildlife in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions, HPAI is likely to have severe consequences, including significant declines in breeding success and mortality rates.
Approximately 20,000 sea lions in Chile and Peru have been lost due to the virus. According to Dewar, if similar outbreaks occur in other areas, the consequences could be significant. The populations of emperor and chinstrap penguins have already experienced significant declines, so any additional outbreaks would only add to the pressure on these colonies.
The current spread of the extremely contagious form of H5N1, which began in 2021, is believed to have caused the death of numerous wild birds. The specific strain present in Antarctica is known as clade 18.104.22.168b and has significantly reduced bird populations in the UK, continental Europe, South Africa, and the Americas, with seabird colonies seeing a decline of 50% to 60%. However, the H5N1 strain has not yet reached Oceania.
Michelle Wille, a researcher at the University of Sydney, is working to document the deaths that have occurred. She expressed concern about the recent spread of the virus to the sub-Antarctic region and the potential for it to reach the Antarctic. This could have detrimental consequences for wildlife and could also disrupt the delicate balance of the Antarctic ecosystem due to the significant reduction in animal populations.
Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency are investigating potential instances of illness, conducting tests, and exchanging information. Due to the vast expanse of Antarctica and limited monitoring personnel, accurately documenting these occurrences is difficult. Reports of large-scale fatalities have been reported by tour ships.
Dr. Michael Wenger, a marine biologist and Antarctica guide for 18 years, stated that various locations in South Georgia are currently off limits to visitors and even scientists must undergo strict protocols in order to access the area. This measure is being taken to prevent the spread of disease.
The individual mentioned that it is difficult to determine the number of animals in the large area even under normal circumstances, and with the closures in place, it becomes even more challenging.