Seabird experts working with the Australian Antarctic Program will travel to Antarctica this summer to monitor seabird populations for signs of the deadly avian influenza virus. Avian influenza, known as bird flu, has been around for decades but in 2020 a new highly pathogenic strain emerged (HPAI H5N1), resulting in severe disease and high mortality rates.

There have been no identified cases in Antarctica to date, but according to the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP), bird flu has been detected in birds and mammals in South America, South Africa and the Arctic “so the risk is heightened that HPAI will make its way to Antarctica by way of natural migration of species during the 2023/24 or the 2024/25 Antarctic seasons.”

Seabird ecologist Dr Louise Emmerson said the disease was highly transmittable between birds and was expected to arrive in the Falkland Islands, not far from Antarctica, when the migratory species returned to their breeding colonies.

“There are a range of bird species that have been affected and we know it can affect penguins as well as flying seabirds. Concerningly, it has also been found to occur in seals and rarely in humans.” she said.

“There are some colonies where it’s wiped out 75 per cent of the population so it is a very significant virus. There have literally been deaths of many hundreds of thousands of birds from this virus.

“Basically, this year our recommendation is to keep away from wildlife in Antarctica. Normally we would suggest expeditioners could sit quietly and enjoy the opportunity of a curious penguin coming close as long as they didn't approach the penguin, but this year it is important to keep a distance.

“We’ll be running a monitoring program from back here (in Hobart) where we’ll ask expeditioners from all three Australian Antarctic research stations to take video footage to send to us, and we’ll have a look at it.

“We are also sending seabird research teams to Antarctica where they can take a closer look at the birds and make a call based on their extensive experience working with and around them and knowing what normal bird behaviour and colonies look like.”.

“If there’s any sign of sick or dying birds that we suspect is avian influenza, then we’ll close that area.”

‘We will be disinfecting boots, equipment and clothing’

The most likely way the disease would arrive in Antarctica is via a migratory bird but there is also risk of transmission from humans.

Special measures are being taken this year to prevent that.

“Through the Australian Antarctic Program, we’re maintaining extra vigilance so that any of the equipment we’re sending down with expeditioners is not going to have avian influenza on it," Dr Emmerson said.

“We will also be disinfecting boots, equipment and clothing between sites to ensure there is no risk of us spreading it if it’s there.”

To protect both birds and humans, AAD seabird research teams in Antarctica will wear extra protective clothing, face masks and eye protection when they are close to colonies or working with the birds and will only conduct research in areas where there is no visual sign of the virus.

The National Science Foundation in the US has released similar guidelines for people working with the US Antarctic Program, advising expeditioners to decontaminate equipment and refrain from spending too much time on the ground near wildlife.

It lists symptoms of the virus in birds and mammals as trembling of the head and body, closed or excessively watery eyes, lethargy and loss of balance.

“While we will be keeping a close eye for any signs of avian influenza, our research focus this year is on how the seabirds respond to record low sea-ice, and whether the Adélie penguin populations in the Mawson area have showed any signs of recovery since a recent dramatic decline,” Dr Emmerson said.

International Antarctic programs working together

The team will be attaching GPS and satellite loggers to the birds to understand where the penguins and petrels are foraging and whether their dive behaviour has changed.

Scats will also be collected to see what they have been eating.

“We haven’t had access to this area since we recorded the penguin population decline so we are very keen to understand what has happened since,” Dr Emmerson said.

“Our concern is that even if the population has started to recover, the arrival of avian influenza in the coming years could again put enormous pressure on these birds.

“In this year though, the research plans would come to a halt if there are signs of avian influenza. The things we’ll be keeping an eye out for are, have there been changes in their behaviour? Is there any unusual mortality? Is there any mucus or anything that doesn’t look right?

“Then we’ll be going through a procedure, consistent with the other national Antarctic programs, to stop work in that area.

“It’s an Antarctic-wide initiative.”