Tag Archives: penguins

King penguins. Credit: Pixabay.

World’s 2nd largest penguin colony collapses, losing 88% of members in just 35 years

Île aux Cochons king penguin colony in 1982. Credit: Henry Weimerskirch

Île aux Cochons king penguin colony in 1982. Credit: Henry Weimerskirch

Up until the late 1980s, king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) breeding in islands in the Southern Ocean formed the largest of the species’ colonies and the second largest penguin colony in the world. A recent aerial survey of the area, however, has found evidence of a dramatic collapse, with breeding pairs plummeting from almost 500,000 to only 60,000 in just 35 years.

The colony formed on the islands of Morne du Tamaris Colony, Ile aux Cochons, and Iles Crozet in the southern Indian Ocean was discovered and photographed by a cartographic team in 1962. At the time, it was estimated — based on surface measurements of the colony and breeding densities — to contain over 300,000 pairs of king penguins, a number which swelled to 500,000 breeding pairs in 1982–1988. This increase has been interpreted as a recovery from historical exploitation in the 19th century and changes in the functioning of trophic (food) webs.

But just as easily as the colony grew, so did it unexpectedly collapse. According to helicopter and satellite images of the Southern Ocean islands gathered from 2015 to 2017, researchers at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Villiers en Bois found that the colony’s numbers dropped by 88% in 35 years. As a result, nearly one-third of the world’s king penguins have disappeared.

The new estimate is considered to be fairly accurate. Unlike emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri Gray), for which colonies can be detected from guano deposits on the ice and population estimates are difficult, king penguins breed on bare flat ground, at relatively constant densities, which makes detection and counting easy to do.

Ile aux Cochons (67 km2) is one of the three larger members of the Crozet archipelago and is a remote island that rarely sees visitors. The largest king penguin colony congregates about a mile from the eastern shore of hte island, right on the border of an ancient volcanic cone, the Morne du Tamaris.

The decline of the penguin colony seems to have occurred progressively — at the very least, the area occupied by the colony has progressively decreased, as evidenced by the gradual recovery of the vegetation around the colony’s periphery.

“The cause of the massive decline of the colony remains a mystery, and needs to be resolved,” the paper concludes. “Although the decline started at least 20 years ago, it appears to be ongoing, and the causes of the decline may still be active.”

It’s not clear what led to the collapse of this colony, but the French researchers led by Henri Weimerskirch have some hypotheses. One important factor seems to be the strong Dipole event in 1997 that affected the foraging capacity of king penguins on Ile de la Possession, the second most important island of Iles Crozet for breeding king penguins.

King penguins. Credit: Pixabay.

King penguins. Credit: Pixabay.

Although feral cats and house mice are not known predators of king penguin chicks, their behavior towards native fauna has changed. Previous studies have shown that both are now attacking albatross chicks and adults, causing a decline of at least some populations — and perhaps they may also be impacting king penguins.

Diseases and parasites may also be affecting the seabirds, reducing breeding success and the survivability of the adults. There is no data as of yet for the occurrence of any diseases on Ile aux Cochons but ticks — which are a vector of Lyme disease — are known to affect seabird populations. Also, Avian cholera is currently ravaging populations of seabirds on other islands in the Indian Ocean, like the albatross of Île Amsterdam and the penguins of Marion Island.

A catastrophic event seems to have been unlikely; there is no evidence of a tsunami hitting the island nor of any volcanic eruption. What’s more, the progressive decline of the colony suggests a gradual, long-term decrease in the colony rather than a sudden blow to the population.

Climate change is another important factor that might contribute to the king penguin’s colony collapse. Much of the decline seems to have begun in the late 1990s, a period which coincides with a strong El Niño weather event that warmed the southern Indian Ocean and impacted the colony’s food supply. Since then, there have been several more El Niño events. A previous study found that given current warming trends, 70% of the world’s king penguins could be forced to be move elsewhere by 2100 or risk perishing.

Scientific reference: Henri Weimerskirch, Fabrice Le Bouard, Peter G. Ryan, C.A. Bost. Massive decline of the world’s largest king penguin colony at Ile aux Cochons, CrozetAntarctic Science, 2018; 30 (04): 236 DOI: 10.1017/S0954102018000226.

Large, previously unknown penguin colony discovered through satellite

During the past years, the total number of Adélie Penguins has been steadily declining. But thanks to the advent of remote sensing technologies, researchers have found a new supercolony of more than 1,500,000 individuals.

After the satellite, researchers used drones to count the penguins. Image credits: T. S. McChord / H. Singh /NU / WHOI.

Danger Island

The first clues came in 2014 when researchers observed large patches of guano (their poo) contrasting with the mostly white, snowy background. Heather Lynch, Associate Professor of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University, and her colleague Mathew Schwaller, from NASA, were curious to see what the source of the guano was, so they contacted Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist at WHOI, Mike Polito at LSU and Tom Hart at Oxford University. Together, they started planning an expedition, but there was a problem: their destination was Danger Islands.

The Danger Islands were discovered on 28 December 1842 by a British explorer called James Clark Ross, who named them thusly due to the heavy fragments of ice concealed which “guard” the island. Even during the summer, the islands are extremely dangerous and difficult to explore. But, since the Landsat satellites don’t have a high enough resolution to properly describe the colony, they needed to get closer.

The researchers found that the Danger Islands have 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins–more than the rest of the entire Antarctic Peninsula region combined. They include the third and fourth largest Adélie penguin colonies in the world. Image credits: Michael Polito, Louisiana State University.

So in December 2015, they finally managed to get on ground and start the count. To get a clear image of the colony and to avoid disturbing the birds, they used drones which flew above the penguins and took detailed photos.

“The drone lets you fly in a grid over the island, taking pictures once per second. You can then stitch them together into a huge collage that shows the entire landmass in 2D and 3D,” says co-PI Hanumant Singh, Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University, who developed the drone’s imaging and navigation system.

The drones flew grids above the penguins. Credits: C. Youngflesh / SBU.

Large and healthy

Researchers found that  theDanger Islands host a whopping 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins, including the third and fourth largest colonies in the world. But here’s the thing: not only have they found an incredible number of penguins, but these penguins seem unfazed by the woes of other populations.

“Not only do the Danger Islands hold the largest population of Adélie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula, they also appear to have not suffered the population declines found along the western side of Antarctic Peninsula that are associated with recent climate change,” study co-author Michael Polito, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University, said in a statement. 

The Adélie penguins, which measure 46 to 71 cm (18 to 28 in) in height and 3.6 to 6 kg (7.9 to 13.2 lb) in weight, have been under significant pressure from warming temperatures and diminishing ice ranges. A 2016 study found that a third of current Adélie colonies may be in decline by 2060, and approximately 60 percent of the present population might be dwindling by 2099. It’s hard to say exactly what is causing their decline, but it’s likely a sum of factors related to temperature shifts.

This graphic shows changes to the suitability of Adélie penguin breeding areas. New colonies not featured. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“It’s hard to know the causes. Clearly, climate change and reduction in ice and krill play a part, but a decline in sea-ice also allows in shipping – fisheries in particular – which may exacerbate the problem,” adds Jenouvrier.

“In the past we’ve looked at this on the West Antarctic Peninsula versus places like Elephant Island (further to the north). Finally getting into the Danger Islands and counting the penguins shows how robust populations are where the ice is intact.”

Furthermore, having an accurate count allows researchers to better understand the situation and challenges of the species, and will improve the accuracy of future countings. But it also adds new questions which researchers hope to answer in the future.

“The population of Adélies on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula is different from what we see on the west side, for example. We want to understand why. Is it linked to the extended sea ice condition over there? Food availability? That’s something we don’t know,” she says.

Journal Reference: Alex Borowicz et al. ‘Multi-modal survey of Adélie penguin mega-colonies reveals the Danger Islands as a seabird hotspot’. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-22313-w

Gentoo Penguins nesting. Credit: Flickr, Liam Quinn.

Thousand-year-old penguin poop points to devastating colony collapse at the hand of volcanic eruptions

Every breeding season, up to 5,000 pairs of gentoo penguins crowd the tiny Ardley Island in the South Shetlands chain just near Antarctica. This has been going on for at least 7,000 years but a group of researchers wanted to study how rising sea levels and changing temperatures affected colony populations in the past to better understand possible outcomes of modern climate change. To their surprise, the biggest disruptor was volcanic eruptions — something which they learned in great detail from an unlikely source: guano.

 Gentoo Penguins nesting. Credit: Flickr, Liam Quinn.

Gentoo Penguins nesting. Credit: Flickr, Liam Quinn.

Gentoo penguins are hard to miss. With their red-orange beaks, white-feather caps, and peach-colored feet, these penguins easily stand out against their favorite bedrock habitat. They’re the third biggest penguins reaching a height of 30 inches (76 centimeters) and a weight of 12 pounds (5.5 kilograms). They might be the biggest poopers in the penguin family, though. Each gentoo excretes 84.5 grams of guano per day, which is almost as much as a human though the bird weighs 15 times less on average. Every breeding cycle, some 139 tons of dry guano are produced on the 1.9-kilometer-long Ardley Island, according to a team led by Dr. Stephen J. Roberts of the British Antarctic Survey.

Roberts and colleagues extracted sediment cores from Ardley Lake, a small lake that sits at the center of the island, to study colony health in the past. Ardley Island is one of the biggest gentoo penguin colonies which made it particularly appealing for research.

Immediately after the researchers extracted the sediments they knew something smelled fishy *cough. Some of the layers smelled differently. Additionally, there were ash and penguin bones embedded in some of these layers which prompted the team to drill in other places such as less populated coastlines along the island.

Based on the percentage of guano found in the sediment sample, the researchers established a record of the penguin population over the last couple thousand years. This analysis revealed wide fluctuations in penguin numbers on Ardley Island.

For at least three times, the nearby Deception Island volcano erupted coinciding with a dramatic fall in penguin numbers. The ash and smoke likely killed some and led all of the penguins to flee to other habitats. And because the landscape became so inhospitable after each eruption, penguin numbers didn’t rebound for 400 years. In one particular case, it took 800 years, the researchers reported in Nature Communications.


The penguins must have been terrified by the eruptions that spewed glass, poisonous gases, and toxic metals, a gruesome scene that reminds one of the sufferings of Pompeii.  The last big eruption happened some 3,000 years ago while the 1970s saw the last small but significant eruption. Today, however, the waters around the volcano’s caldera are a lot less menacing. Cruise ships often anchor nearby so passengers can swim in some key spots where the water is warmed by the volcano’s heat, with ice and glaciers in the background.

The findings don’t seem to pose any climate-related consequences, but they do show that, in this particular instance, local events can have a far greater effect on populations than global trends. A volcano eruption like the ones that repeatedly drove the gentoo penguins away from Ardley Island might not be slated for another thousand years but in the meantime, the awkward penguins have other things to worry about. Local pollution and disrupted fisheries are driving the number of some populations down. The gentoo penguin is protected by the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and received near-threatened status on the IUCN Red List in 2007.

The Red Light Forest – Prostitution in the Animal World


You know what’s awesome? Having sex.

We like it so much that it creeps into every corner of our lives. On a recent drive, I saw a huge billboard advertising a sporting bets website. It struck me as odd because this ad featured a pretty, scantily-clad young woman encouraging me to bet on sports — an activity that easily makes it onto my top 3 not-sexy-things list. Why were the two put together? Why does this lady want me to bet, and why do I feel compelled to do so?

Well, because sex sells.

It’s a fact that hasn’t escaped animals, either. All life is programmed to procreate, and sex is a great way to do it. It’s not the only way, but it’s certainly the most fun. Procreation is a very powerful instinct and organisms will go to great lengths to satisfy it — something which some species have learned to leverage to their advantage.

Chimp prostitution

In 2011, scientists inadvertently created prostitution among Capuchin monkeys during an experiment, but the history of monkey prostitution goes back even further.

Back in 2009, Christina Gomes and Christophe Boesch of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology published a paper in support of the “meat-for-sex” behavior hypotheses in early human society. In a nutshell, the theory holds that the ladies would have been all over the best hunters among our ancestors because they had meat to share. This would benefit the males by providing more mating opportunities while allowing the females a method to widen their diet and intake more calories and nutrients via meat without having to hunt — which is both dangerous and energy intensive.

But since early humans are decidedly scarce, the team tested their theory on chimpanzees.

“Humans and chimpanzees are unusual among primates in that they frequently perform group hunts of mammalian prey and share meat with conspecifics,” the team writes.

Tit for meat

Just like humans, chimpanzee males have been observed to share meat with unrelated females, which seems strange from an evolutionary point of view. Hunting is dangerous and draining, so meat has a lot of value — in a sense, meat is expensive. As a species, chimps are also “highly promiscuous, […] have a certain degree of female choice,” and the hunters usually “control the sharing of their catch.”

That feel when you’ve got all this meat and she says she’s a vegetarian.
Image via Day Donaldson / Flickr.

So I think you can guess where this is going. The males have meat which they can decide to share or not, and they’re really horny. The females, on the other hand, aren’t as physically fit as the males so they can’t get as much meat, but they do have something the males want. Namely, themselves.

The team followed a group of wild chimpanzees in the Taï National Park, Côte d’Ivoire, between 2003 and 2006. The group consisted of five adult males and 14 adult females. Out of these 14, eight had been in estrus (in heat) at some point during the study period. As male chimpanzees only copulate with estrous females, the analysis was restricted to pairs formed by these females and the five adult males.

At least one estrous female was present in 64 of the total 90 successful observed hunts, and at least one anestrous female was present during 81 of the hunts. During this time, the team recorded 262 male to female meat transfers. How much and how often each male shared meat with each female varied considerably during the study, meaning each female received a different caloric benefit from each male. A total of 262 copulations were observed during the time the females were in estrus, in at least 30 different pairings.

A female generally didn’t copulate with all the males, and the time they spent with each male varied considerably. Out of the 30 pairs that were observed copulating, in nine cases (30%) the male did not share meat with the female, while in 21 cases (70%) the male shared meat with the female throughout the entire study period. The team accounted for factors such as social status or grooming, but meat sharing still remained a significant factor in mating success.

So while chimpanzees don’t follow the clear-cut “I will pay you this for sex” behavior humans employ, males considerably improved their chances of copulating by sharing meat.

Penguin chicks are all about location

While chimpanzee females trade sex for food, a real-estate shortage is powering Adelie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) females’ prostitution. The species builds nests out of the material available on the beaches they use to nest, but because there are so many penguins, there isn’t always enough to go around.

“This material is in the form of small stones used to create a platform on which the female lays her two eggs. Stones are in great demand in the colony and are collected by both males and females from the ground in the area surrounding the breeding group,” write F. M. Hunter and L. S. Davis in their paper.

Adelie penguins mate for life, but certain females have been observed to leave their nest and visit single males that are trying to build their own. There they copulate with the lucky fellows, take a stone, and then scamper off to their own nest. The duo observed ten cases of a female visiting a single male and note that the female is receptive to copulation, and in 8 out of 10 cases the act ended with successful insemination.

Not to brag but I have the biggest pebble on this beach.
Image credits Liam Quinn / Flickr.

They also write that after each attempt at copulation the male dismounts the female who takes a stone then leaves. In 5 out of the 10 cases, the female returned to the lone male to take another stone, but without further copulation. In one case, a female returned no less than 10 times to the extrapair male, taking a pebble each time. The females always returned to their mate after their adventures, depositing the pebble on their nest. The paired males didn’t seem to suspect anything fishy going on, and no extrapair male was observed to try and take the stones back from the females.

Tricky females…

Sometimes, however, the females outright trick the males — they take part in the courtship ritual, take a few stones, then leave the male alone. Dr. Fiona Hunter, a researcher in the Zoology Department at Cambridge University, who has spent five years observing the birds’ mating patterns, said that we don’t really understand why this happens.

“The female only takes one or two stones,” she said. “It takes hundreds to build the nest to get their eggs off the ground.”

“I think what they are doing is having copulation for another reason and just taking the stones as well. We don’t know exactly why, but they are using the males.”

One of her theories is that the females are on the look-out for potential future mates, in case they ever need one. Whatever it is that drives them, prostitution is much less widespread among penguin females than their chimpanzee counterparts.

“It’s probably only a few percent,” Dr. Hunter adds. “I was watching opportunistically, so I can’t give an exact figure of how common it really is.”

The humm of love

Being a hummingbird gal ain’t easy. Hummingbirds are fiercely territorial, and males usually have the upper hand. Being heavier and stronger than the females, they command the territories with better overall energetic value — the best turfs with plenty of flowers that produce nectar. The females, on the other hand, are usually forced to make due with less attractive territories — either those that are very large and hard to defend or those that yield less nectar. So, when the going gets tough because of droughts or loss of plants, the females must either make do with limited energy resources or find a way to sponge off of the males’ territory.

This my turf.
Image part of the public domain.

Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of Syracuse Larry Wolf described in a paper in 1975 how the female Purple-throated Carib Hummingbird (Eulumpis jugularis) was observed to use sex to feed off of males’ territory during a time of drought. The specimens he collected during his study showed that because the birds’ mating season wasn’t yet in swing, the males’ testes weren’t yet fully enlarged (1-1,5 mm large in January compared to 6 mm by mid-April) and the females were not yet ready to lay eggs — in other words, there was no reproductive incentive behind the mating.

Power play

Wolf described the behavior in 5 steps, labeled A to E. These could all take place or just a number of them, for example straight from A to E. Wolf theorized that birds which wave interacted previously might skip the middle steps.

When a female first attempted to feed in a territory claimed by a male, he would chase her off, constituting stage A. Stage A would see repeated chasings-off of the female, with later-stage flights taking the male further away from his territory for longer periods of time. In stage B, the female would position herself in close proximity to the male with no aggression from him. He who would allow her to feed and would make token shows of dominance by making a “rocking display towards the female, who was usually more than five feet away at the time.” The male would also allow the female to displace him from perches he vigorously defended up to that point.

Stage C included performances by both birds, usually the male, with stage D being copulation. The females were responsive to the act, assuming a horizontal posture with the tail to one side. Wolf notes that up to stage D, the usually dominant males allowed the females to assume dominance, letting them feed on the best flowers and allowing them to perch unimpeded.

Stage E, the postcopulatory period, saw the males either standing a short distance away from the females or flying in circles above them. If the females attempted to feed again, the males would chase them off as soon as they became aware of it. Following the act, the males had re-established their dominance over the females.

Sex truly sells, but it also buys.

It seems to me that these female animals offer sex as a bargaining chip for things they can’t — or would be too difficult to — get for themselves. Be it food or shelter for their eggs, they look to males who have the resources they need and convince them to share by copulating with them. There’s betrayal, role reversal, and debauchery, but in the end everyone gets a meal and some love.

And isn’t that what we all want?



Antarctica could lose 60 percent of its penguins to climate change by the end of the century

Though Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) call Antarctica their home since 45,000 years ago, time in which they’ve seen several drastic changes in the climate, anthropogenic climate change might put populations to the ultimate test. After studying how colonies fared over a 30-year-period, researchers believe as much as 60 percent of the current Adélie penguin habitats might become unfit by the end of the century.


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The penguins nest on the mainland during summer and migrate to the very edge of the sea in winter where they can feed. By stitching together high-resolution satellite imagery, researchers at the University of Delaware were able to assess how the penguin colonies grew or faded across sites in Antartica between 1981 and 2010.

The population trends show that some populations have grown, while others have decreased. To understand the data, we first need to learn about the two most important factors that influence a colony’s wellbeing. Simply put, these are food and nesting availability, as well as quality.

Krill and fish make up the bulk of a penguin’s diet, but changes in ice and sea temperatures affect this supply. Across the Antarctic coast, fish populations have gone down because of this, but largely due to human fishing. 

In 2014, 290,000 tonnes of krill were harvested in the South Atlantic Sector, with Norway, Korea, China, and Chile being the biggest krill fishing nations. So, the krill supply vanishing and has to be split with humans, but the main problem for penguins lies in fish, which are far more nutritious than krill. The researchers say those areas where krill makes the bulk of the diet have suffered a decline in  Adélie penguin populations.

Since the local weather is changing, bringing in more precipitations, climate change prematurely melts snowfall, creating puddles on the ground. The penguins lay their eggs in cold, dry snow, but if these get trapped in pools of water they’ll never hatch. Chicks also don’t have waterproof feathers yet, so many die due to hypothermia.

“The Adélie penguin is a sea ice obligate and only occurs where there is sea ice for a good part of the year…Where sea ice is disappearing in the northern Antarctic peninsula, the Adélie penguin is disappearing,” said David Ainley, a senior biologist with the ecological consulting firm HT Harvey & Associates, who was not involved in the study.

Megan Cimino, one of the lead authors of the study published in the journal Scientific Reportssays the current trends suggest 30 percent of the animal’s colonies will be in jeopardy by 2030, and 60 percent will be impacted by 2099. Near the U.S. research facility at Palmer Station on the West Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), a penguin colony has already dropped by 80 percent since the 1970s.

“Within this region we saw the most novel climate years compared to the rest of the continent,” Cimino explains. “This means the most years with warmer than normal sea surface temperature. These two things seem to be happening in the WAP at a higher rate than in other areas during the same time period.

All is not lost for the Adélie penguins, though. Cimino and colleagues identified several sites across the Antarctic where the penguins could migrate from their traditional breeding and foraging grounds and sustain stable populations. Such safe havens might be found near the Ross and Amundsen Seas.

“The Cape Adare region of the Ross Sea is home to the earliest known penguin occupation and has the largest known Adélie penguin rookery in the world,” Cimino said. “Though the climate there is expected to warm a bit, it looks like it could be a refugia in the future.”

Before penguin colonies collapse even further, the researchers advise policy makers from the seven sovereign nations that maintain territorial claims in Antarctica to step up conservations efforts.

Oldest Man in Australia is Saving Penguins by Knitting Them Sweaters

Alfie Date speaks to Nine News about his love of knitting.

Alfred “Alfie” Date is Australia’s oldest living person, at 109; he’s also a self-taught expert knitter who is doing his best to help penguins in Australia and New Zealand survive oil spills – by knitting them sweaters.

He told 9stories he answered the call of Phillip Island’s Penguin Foundation which asked for knitters from around the world to make tiny woolen sweaters for Little Penguins to wear following an oil spill. Little penguins are the smallest species of penguin. Theygrow to an average of 33 cm (13 in) in height and 43 cm (17 in) in length and are only found in Southern Australia and New Zealand (with some reports in Chile).

An oily penguin gets around in his sweater.

The 109-year-old was asked by two nurses to start knitting miniature tops at his long-term care home near Umina Beach in New South Wales. He says that his inability to say ‘no’ did the rest.

“The girls who used to work for me, they’ll tell you I’m a sucker. I can’t say no,” Date told the station. “It’s a good way of getting along in life. You make friends all the time but you don’t make a fool of yourself either.”

The sweaters are not a fashion statement or a trend, they help the penguins stay protected from spilled oil. If oil reaches the feathers, it can make the feathers stick together and allow cold water to reach the skin, making them cold and unable to heat themselves.

“When oiled penguins arrive at the foundation, they are given a jacket to wear so that they don’t consume the toxins or preen their feathers. In 2001, 438 penguins were affected in an oil spill at Phillip Island and by using the knitted outfits, 96% of the penguins were rehabilitated at the clinic, according to the foundation’s website”, Mashable writes.

As for Alfie, he seems to be enjoying the activity. After remembering the sinking of the Titanic and the declaration of two World Wars, he is now saving penguins. After all, it’s a good thing he never learned how to say ‘no’.

Adelie penguins going about their way. Photo :Peter & J. Clement/

New bird flu infects Antarctic penguins

Adelie penguins going about their way. Photo :Peter & J. Clement/

Adelie penguins going about their way. Photo :Peter & J. Clement/

It’s so cold even penguins get the flu in the Antarctic. Seriously, researchers report in a paper published in the journal mBio how they identified a new strain of influenza that infects Adelie penguins which breed in huge colonies on the rocky Antarctic Peninsula. The virus itself seems to be dormant as the penguins don’t exhibit any visible flu symptoms, yet the findings do raise important questions like how influenza spreads over the world in extremely isolated regions such as the Antarctic.

Bird flu strikes penguins

Researchers at a World Health Organization flu lab in Australia, led by Aeron Hurt, trekked down to the Antarctic Peninsula a year ago and collected oral samples from two distinct colonies. Using a laboratory technique called real-time reverse transcription-PCR, the researchers found avian influenza virus (AIV) genetic material in 3 percent of the samples.

[NOW READ] Climate change causes penguin colonies to decline by a third

The researchers managed to culture four viruses, demonstrating that live infectious virus was present. All of these were H11N2 influenza viruses that were highly similar to each other, yet when their genomes were compared with those from a database spanning all known animal and human influenzas there was nothing quite alike on the planet. Apparently, this penguin influenza is unique.

This suggests that it has been isolated for many decades — presumably hiding out in the penguins’ digestive and respiratory tracts, or possibly frozen in Antarctic ice. So where did they come from and in Antarctica of all places?

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Four of the gene segments were most closely related to North American avian lineage viruses from the 1960s to 1980s. Two genes showed a distant relationship to a large number of South American AIVs from Chile, Argentina and Brazil. Using a molecular clock to incorporate the evolutionary rate of each AIV gene segment, the researchers estimated that the virus has been evolving for the past 49 to 80 years without anyone knowing about it.

Concerning this South American connection, it may be possible that long distance migratory birds are the root of the virus’ spreading. The yellow-billed pintail duck, for instance, is known to stray from South America and end up on the Antarctic Peninsula. This coupled with penguins’ utter contempt for hygiene, despite their tuxedo, fancy-like appearance, may have helped spread the virus.

“The large amount of penguin feces in colonies during summer, which in some cases is so significant it can be observed on satellite images, presumably facilitates (viral) transmission by the fecal-oral route,” the scientists note.

While the penguin influenza hasn’t caused any illness yet, it’s still interesting to follow. Scientists might gather from this how often, for instance, infectious viruses can reach isolated communities and far away places like Antarctica and what animals are most vulnerable.