Avian flu confirmed in Humboldt penguins in Chile | Polarjournal
A young Humboldt penguin in the Coquimbo region that was confirmed to have the avian flu virus. Photo: Servicio Nacional de Pesca y Acuicultura

The highly pathogenic H5N1 virus is on the advance southward and not far from Antarctica. The National Service of Agriculture and Livestock in Chile reported last week the first four confirmed cases of avian influenza in Humboldt penguins in the regions of Tarapacá, Antofagasta and Coquimbo. On Friday, March 10, another 67 Humboldt penguins stranded at Chañaral in the Atacama region, pending investigation.

The first cases of H5N1 occurred in Peru and Chile late last year, where pelicans in particular died en masse. It was therefore only a matter of time before the virus also infected the Humboldt penguins(Spheniscus humboldti) native to Chile. Magellanic penguins(Spheniscus magellanicus), which are found in southern Chile, but also in the Falkland Islands, Argentina and Uruguay, may also be affected.

According to a listing from the National Service of Fisheries and Aquaculture (SERNAPESCA), samples from a total of 76 stranded Humboldt penguins and 16 Magellanic penguins have been taken along the Chilean coast, with analyses pending. Two of the Magellanic penguins were found in the southernmost region of Magallanes. If avian influenza infections are confirmed there, it is feared that transmission to seabirds traveling between southern South America, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Antarctica is likely not long in coming.

Humboldt penguins are considered endangered due to overfishing and intensive guano mining in the 19th century. Additionally, El Niño events threaten the penguins, which grow up to 65 centimeters tall. And this summer, another El Niño period may be on the horizon after a long La Niña period, according to the latest analysis by the U.S. National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. A near simultaneous emergence of a deadly virus and El Niño could put Humboldt penguins in dire straits.

However, according to SERNAPESCA, not only birds but also marine mammals are affected. The agency reported three confirmed infections in southern sea lions(Otaria flavescens) and one in Chilean otters or chungungo(Lontra felina). In Peru, nearly 600 sea lions fell victim to the virus.

The H5N1 virus could potentially affect hundreds of thousands of king penguins, millions of golden crested penguins, albatrosses, and many other seabird species on South Georgia, as well as southern elephant seals, Antarctic fur seals, and other seals. Photo: Michael Wenger

Transmission of the virus by long-distance migratory seabirds to (sub)Antarctic species seems to be getting closer with the new cases. Should it come to that, the unique wildlife with numerous species of penguins and seals on the Falkland Islands, on South Georgia and other subantarctic islands as well as in Antarctica could face a catastrophe. In that case, hope prevails that the environmental conditions will then be reasonably favorable and that no further stress factors will affect the populations, some of which are already severely stressed.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

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