Scientists have recorded the first cases of avian flu in the Antarctic, finding the disease has spread among migrating brown skuas.
The recent unexplained deaths of brown skuas on Bird Island in South Georgia spurred researchers with the British Antarctic Survey to test the birds for avian influenza. Swabs collected were sent to the UK for testing, and the results came back positive for H5N1, a highly contagious form of bird flu. Scientists believe the skuas contracted the disease on their yearly migration from Argentina.
A recent report on the potential impact of bird flu on the Antarctic continent warned the disease was likely to spread from South America via gulls or skuas. The arrival of bird flu would have a “devastating impact on many wildlife species in the region and could lead to catastrophic breeding failure,” said the report’s lead author, Meagan Dewar, chair of the Antarctic Wildlife Health Network.
The current outbreak of H5N1 was first detected in 2021 and has killed as many as a million wild birds across much of the globe. More recently, the disease has infected some mammals, raising fears that it could take a form that is easily contracted by humans. In an effort to curb the spread of bird flu, researchers with the British Antarctic Survey have suspended most fieldwork involving the handling of animals and are taking care in cleaning clothing and field equipment.