First cases of bird flu detected in Antarctic


As conservationists feared, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI; bird flu) has now reached the Antarctic, with cases confirmed in Brown Skuas on Bird Island in South Georgia.

The birds that tested positive in late October represent the first confirmed cases of the devastating virus in the region.

Brown Skuas on Bird Island, South Georgia, tested positive for bird flu (Steve Copsey).

Ashley Bennison, British Antarctic Survey science manager for Bird Island, said: "This is a particularly sad event to confirm. We will continue to monitor the species on the island as best as we can and keep the science going, but we are unsure of the full impact at the moment."

South Georgia, a British Overseas Territory, lies east of the southern tip of South America and north of the main landmass of Antarctica. Scientists predicted that bird flu would reach the Antarctic this season following its spread into South America since October 2022.

OFFLU, a global network of avian influenza experts, issued a warning of 'substantial risk' to Antarctic bird and mammal populations in August "due to the spring migration of wild birds from South America to breeding sides in the Antarctic."

At the same time, the network said that Antarctic wildlife was at particular risk because of "their likely susceptibility to mortality from this virus, and their occurrence in dense colonies of up to thousands of pinnipeds and hundreds of thousands of birds, allowing efficient virus transmission."

More than 100 million individual birds breed in the Antarctic, while six species of pinnipeds breed in the region. Bird Island alone supports almost 29,000 pairs of albatrosses, including Black-browed, Grey-headed and Wandering, as well as 65,000 pairs of Fur Seals.

The Antarctic Wildlife Health Network has set up an HPAI database to log information on the spread of the virus across the continent.

Conservationists are bracing themselves for a 'catastrophic breeding failure' among the Antarctic's bird and mammal colonies.

Research and tourism operations in the Antarctic are under tight restrictions this season, with most fieldwork involving contact between humans and animals suspended, and strict rules for visiting tourists.