The spectre of avian influenza spreads in South Georgia | Polarjournal
The St Andrews Bay king penguin colony is the largest in South Georgia, with around 150,000 breeding pairs. Image : Camille Lin

The two most common species of penguin in the South Georgia archipelago have just shown signs of vulnerability to the avian flu virus.

Gentoos and king penguins in South Georgia are infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza, warns the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Yesterday, the latter revealed the biological results from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) in Weybridge, UK. APHA is a reference for the World Health Organization (WHO) concerning this epidemic. This is the sad first news for the archipelago, unfortunately expected since it was detected in Falkland Islands penguins last January.

Five cases were positive for each species, king and gentoo, at two sites in South Georgia, Will point in the southeast and near Bird Island, where 38 penguins died in suspected cases. “So far, it doesn’t seem to be a brought virus, but rather a localized one”, notes Dr. Norman Ratcliffe, ornithologist at BAS. With the arrival of winter, the animals will scatter at sea, reducing the spread of the virus, however, “king penguins and gentoos continue to form mixed resting groups or breeding groups, respectively, throughout the winter, and may therefore remain at risk”, says the ornithologist. For the moment, BAS members have not observed any unusual mortality, but regret the addition of a mortality factor to wildlife.

Immediately following the discovery of the virus, the government of South Georgia suspended research work involving contact with animals. It is also restricting access to certain sites on the island, and staff are disinfecting shoes and clothing to prevent further spread of the virus. Species surveillance at King Edward Point and Bird Island continues, as do special campaigns to monitor the spread of the disease.

In August 2023, the WHO warned of the particular and unprecedented risks to wildlife in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands during this austral summer. In October 2023, the first cases in South Georgia were recorded in skuas (predatory birds). “We expected them to be the vector,” comments Dr. Norman Ratcliffe. Norman Ratcliffe.

In November, elephant seals were infected, followed by fur seals, crowned terns and Dominican gulls in early 2024. More recently, the virus has been detected in great albatrosses. PCR test results are expected for Bird Island’s black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses.

Avian influenza has already reached the South Shetland Islands and the northern Antarctic Peninsula, with no known penguin casualties. A case of skua is still suspected in the South Orkney Islands.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Updated on March 13, with the addition of comments from Mark Belchier, Director of Fisheries and Environment for the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, on the departure for the South Atlantic:

Whilst it is possible that the virus could still spread throughout the King penguin colonies they will have been exposed to the virus for several months.

We (GSGSSI) will review the situation with our scientific experts at the end of the season and continue monitoring the situation closely over the autumn and winter. We will use this information to inform whether restrictions on access to sites will need to be continued next spring and summer.

There has been testing in many species and it appears that some such as the sheathbill and giant petrels have yet to test positive and seem largely unaffected so far.

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