Antarctic penguins catch new strain of bird flu

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Chinstrap penguins were, last year, found to contract a type of bird flu common to North America.
Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket / Getty Images

A new bird flu virus has been found in Antarctic penguin populations. And while it doesn’t seem to make them sick, it shows how vulnerable the icy continent is to introduced pathogens.

Aeron Hurt from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia and colleagues travelled to five locations on the Antarctic Peninsula in 2014 and 2015 and collected swabs, blood and faeces from different bird species, including gentoo and chinstrap penguins.

Last year, they found a new virus in chinstrap penguins. It was very similar to a North American strain, meaning it was recently introduced.

“This is a concern because avian influenza viruses that can be deadly in many birds have recently circulated in North America,” Hurt said.

The work was published in the Journal of Virology.

There are a number of different avian influenza strains around the globe. For the most part, Eurasian and American lineages are genetically distinct, thanks to the vast distances between them (even though migration paths do overlap).

And viruses have been around Antarctic penguin colonies for decades. For instance, in 2013, Hurt and his crew reported a flu virus in Adélie penguins which they estimate diverged from other viruses between 49 and 80 years ago.

So how did the newest virus get to the Antarctic Peninsula? While the area is too far out of the way for most migratory birds, some species from North and South America do make the trip.

With wild birds and avian influenza, Hurt says, prevention is better than cure. Viruses that rampage through poultry farms, for instance, should be stemmed to keep their wild cousins healthy and prevent their spread across migratory routes.

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