What’s going on here?

Last October bird flu was detected in South Georgia, a remote island in the Antarctic. The virus has spread to mammals too, and caused death of elephant and fur seals. Last week, five gentoo penguins and five king penguins tested positive.

What does this mean?

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is a British Overseas Territory with no resident population, but two British Antarctic Survey bases where they monitor internationally significant seabird and marine mammal populations.

Bird flu was first identified in South Georgia last October in brown skua, a type of seabird. Since, the virus has been confirmed in elephant seals and albatrosses, and recently caused a mass mortality of fur seals so severe that a ship had trouble docking on island.

 Bird flu has been around since the nineties, but we are currently in our worst outbreak to date. Last year Scotland saw a 76% decline in great skua breeding numbers, and bird flu was also one of the reasons behind the recent egg shortage.

Why should we care? 

There is a reason that the latest positive tests in king and gentoo penguins is of such great concern. Bird flu is spread through close contact, so penguins huddling together in the breeding season to court makes this extremely contagious variant all too easy to spread. 

In South Georgia penguins gather in their millions, leading ecologists to fear for mass mortalities across colonies. On the bright side, these latest positive tests have come up towards the end of the breeding season which will limit the spread. 

This can vary between species: the king and gentoo penguins are more at risk because they spend the whole winter on shore, whereas macaroni penguins spend more time at sea so are predicted to be less at risk.

Huddling is not the only behaviour we can look at to understand bird flu. The migratory nature of birds is unfortunately one of the reasons it’s such a devastating global issue. The virus likely reached remote South Georgia because brown skuas spend the winter in South America before returning to the territory to breed.   

Be curious!

  • What to do if you find a dead bird that might have bird flu. First of all, do not touch it, and keep dogs away! Report it online to DEFRA in England, Scotland and Wales and DAERA in Northern Ireland. You can also help track the disease by reporting dead birds on BirdTrack.
  • Read this article by RSPB on how you can help tackle wildlife disease.

Featured image by Rod Long via Unsplash