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Surprising Science

Tourism Threatens to Expose Antarctic Penguins to New Pathogens

Antarctic penguins have had the run of the continent, isolated and unexposed to new pathogens. But a wave of tourism may be threatening penguin populations with disease.

Humans may be posing a biological threat to Antarctica’s most iconic flightless bird: The penguin. One study suggests that the rise in tourism and research teams in the southernmost continent on planet Earth is compromising the health of these animals.

Penny Sarchet of New Scientist writes on the study that was published in the journal of Polar Biology. Researchers believe antarctic creatures, particularly the penguin, have less-developed immune systems because of their isolation, which has made them susceptible to the diseases introduced from humans touring the continent. It’s reported that 37,000 people visited Antarctica in the 2013 to 2014 season—when just 200 years ago man hadn’t set foot on the continent. Even 20 years earlier Antarctica was only playing host to around 8,000 people. But now the continent has become a destination, which, of course, involves a photo op with the penguins.

Wray Grimaldi of the University of Otago in Dunedin warns of the potential outcomes of this latest surge:

“The effects of both a growing tourism industry and research presence will not be without consequences. Penguins are highly susceptible to infectious diseases.”

She bases some of her assumptions off surveys from penguins in captivity from as early as 1947. These animals were treated for diseases, such as Salmonella, E. coli, West Nile virus, and Avian pox. She also cites outbreaks in Antarctica dating back to 1969 where some diseases ravaged populations with mortality rates as high as 60 percent in one 2008 study.

Grimaldi doesn’t lay the blame entirely on humans, though. The rising temperatures due to climate change has altered the migration patterns of some birds, causing some to make landfall in Antarctica (along with their pathogens).

“Climate change may result in a number of stressors that make it more difficult for penguin populations to deal with disease.”

Read more at New Scientist

Photo Credit: NOAA Photo Library/Flickr


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