Bird Flu Found in Penguins for the First Time, Killing 200 Chicks and Counting

By: Georgia McKoy | Published: Feb 11, 2024

The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) has reported the first detection of a deadly bird flu, H5N1, in gentoo penguins near Antarctica, raising concerns about the potential spread among the continent’s vast penguin colonies. 

This discovery came after researchers found approximately 35 penguins dead on the Falkland Islands in January, with two of the deceased testing positive for the virus, as confirmed by Ralph Vanstreels, a veterinarian working with SCAR.

Rising Death Toll Among Penguins

Reuters reports that the situation has escalated quickly, with over 200 penguin chicks and several adults found dead by the end of January, according to a government spokesperson, Sally Heathman.

A group of Gentoo penguins standing on snow and ice. The penguins are black and white with orange beaks and feet. Some of the penguins are standing on their chests, while others are huddled together

Source: WIkimedia Commons

This loss has confirmed the susceptibility of gentoo penguins to the H5N1 virus, which has caused widespread mortality in bird populations across the globe in recent months.

Limited Spread Due to Penguins' Habits

Despite the deaths, the spread of the virus to the Antarctic Peninsula is considered unlikely due to the gentoo penguins’ limited travel between the Falklands and Antarctica, per information from Reuters.

A photo of a Gentoo penguin colony in Antarctica. The penguins are standing on rocks and ice near the water's edge, and there is ice in the background

Source: Birger Strahl/Unsplash

Vanstreels, a researcher affiliated with the University of California-Davis, emphasized that traveling penguins are unlikely to drive the spread to the southern continent.

Local Reservoirs of Infection

The role of gentoo penguins in the spread of H5N1 may be more confined than initially feared.

A close-up view of a king penguin colony at Volunteer Point, Falkland Islands. The penguins are standing on a pebble beach, and there is turquoise water, green hills, and a blue sky in the background

Source: Ian Parker/Unsplash

Reuters reveals that, according to Vanstreels, these penguins could “serve as local reservoirs of infection,” maintaining the virus within the islands without spreading it further. 

Preparing for a Larger Outbreak

The Falkland Islands government is on high alert, “preparing for a large-scale outbreak” among the penguin populations, Heathman told Reuters.

A large group of king penguins standing huddled together on a grassy field. The ground is covered in green grass

Source: Yuriy Rzhemovskiy/Unsplash

With the virus already confirmed in gentoo and potentially affecting rockhopper penguins, efforts are underway to understand the full scope of the threat, as officials await further test results.

Penguins' Susceptibility to H5N1 Confirmed

The Guardian reports that past outbreaks in South Africa, Chile, and Argentina have shown that penguins are particularly susceptible to H5N1.

A black and white penguin standing on its own next to a green tree with brown bark and green leaves. The penguin is facing the left side of the image and the tree is on the right side

Source: Robil Billy/Unsplash

The recent arrival of the virus in the Antarctic signals a grave risk to these species, which have previously experienced massive die-offs in other parts of the world due to similar infections.


Suspected Cases in King Penguins

Reports have emerged of at least one suspected case of H5N1 in king penguins in the Antarctic region, per information from The Guardian.

A close-up photo of a king penguin's head and upper chest. The penguin has bright yellow and orange feathers on its chest and head, with black and white feathers on its back and wings. Its beak is orange and pointed, and its eyes are black and beady

Source: Wikimedia Commons

If confirmed, this would mark the first instance of the virus affecting king penguins in the wild, raising alarms about the potential for widespread transmission among different penguin species.


South Georgia Reports

Authorities in South Georgia have also investigated reports of bird flu in king penguins but found no evidence to support these claims.

A photo of four large king penguins standing on a rocky hillside, partially covered in green moss. The penguins in the foreground are standing close together. There are mountains visible in the background

Source: Brian McMahon/Unsplash

This information, provided to Reuters by Meagan Dewar of SCAR’s Antarctic Wildlife Health Network, offers a glimmer of hope that the virus may not have spread as widely as feared.


Beyond Penguins: Seals at Risk

Reuters notes that the impact of the H5N1 virus extends beyond penguins, with elephant seals and fur seals in South Georgia experiencing increased mortality rates due to the virus.

A close-up photo of a group of seals. The seals have fur in various shades of brown and grey, and they are of different sizes

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ralph Vanstreels highlighted the particular concern for Antarctic fur seals, given that South Georgia is home to a significant portion of the world’s population of this species.


Scientists' Concerns Over Ecological Disaster

Researchers have expressed grave concerns over the potential for H5N1 to cause “one of the largest ecological disasters of modern times” if it continues to spread through Antarctic penguin populations, via information from The Guardian.

A group of penguins in water. Some of the penguins are splashing, and there are icebergs in the backgorund

Source: Jason Row/Unsplash

The timing coincides with the breeding season, during which penguins cluster together, potentially facilitating the rapid transmission of the disease.


No Recorded Cases on the Antarctic Mainland

The New York Times reports that to date, there have been no recorded cases of H5N1 on the Antarctic mainland. While the disease may be spreading, experts say the limited human presence in the area has possibly meant the cases have not been documented. 

This image shows hundreds of penguins gathered together. Some of the penguins are fluffy and brown, whilst some have black and white feathers

Source: Martin Wettstein/Unsplash

This situation highlights the challenges in monitoring and responding to wildlife diseases in remote regions.


H5N1's Impact Beyond Antarctica: Arctic Wildlife at Risk

The devastating effects of the H5N1 virus extend far beyond the shores of Antarctica, reaching into the Arctic and affecting its wildlife populations.

Polar bear standing upright in the snow, with its front paw raised

Source: Hans-Jurgen Mager/Unsplash

In a concerning development reported in December 2023, a polar bear was confirmed to have died from the H5N1 virus, marking the first known case of its kind, according to The Guardian.