Hundreds of elephant seals dead as bird flu hits Antarctic, raising fears penguins could be next

elephant seal Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
elephant seal Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

In a further red flag for penguin populations in Antarctica, a new report reveals that hundreds of elephants seals have been found dead. While on the surface the two trends may seem unrelated, the chair of the Antarctic Wildlife Health Network, Dr. Meagan Dewar, told The Guardian on Friday that "at some sites we’ve had mass mortalities, where we are getting into the hundreds" when it comes to elephant seal populations. Then came the stinger: "There is a likely chance it could be avian influenza," colloquially known as bird flu.

Avian flu has already been confirmed at eight testing sites across the Antarctic, with twenty other site results still pending at the time of this writing. Observers in the Antarctic have reported elephant seals displaying avian flu symptoms including coughing, mucus accumulations around their noses and breathing difficulties. Birds with avian flu suffer from spasms, lethargy and an inability to fly. The virus has already killed over 500,000 seabirds and over 20,000 sea lions in Chile and Peru, and experts are concerned that it could have a catastrophic effect on Antarctic penguin colonies if it reaches them.

This is not the first sign that avian flu is going to reach Earth's southernmost continent. In October a report by the British Antarctic Survey confirmed the avian flu's existence near Antarctica on Bird Island in the South Georgia region, particularly afflicting a species of bird known as the brown skua. In their report, the British Antarctic Survey highlighted the risk to a wide range of local bird populations.

“There are species on some of the Antarctic islands and sub-Antarctic islands that are unique to those islands, and only occur in small numbers, in hundreds or thousands,” Thijs Kuiken from Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study, told New Scientist. “If the virus reaches those populations, they are in threat of extinction.”