Bacteria linked to humans could have devastating consequences for penguins and Antarctic seabirds colonies, according to new research.
There are many human viruses that can be passed on to animals. If you are lying at home with a bad dose of the flu there's a chance that you could pass it on to your pet. It's rare but it can happen. Influenza, mumps, salmonella and ringworm are just some of the diseases that can be transmitted from humans to other animal species. In recent years an outbreak of influenza lead to the death of six bonobos in a Congo wildlife sanctuary. This transmission is known as reverse zoonosis and until now, Antarctica was the only continent where it hadn't been seen before.
Now, however, human-linked pathogens in bird poop reveal, for the first time, that even animals on Earth’s last pristine, untouched and most epic wilderness can pick up a virus from tourists or visiting scientists as the remote location opens up. Scientists fear that this could have devastating consequences for Antarctic bird colonies, including population collapse and even extinction.
The study was conducted by scientists at the University of Barcelona, who studied 600 birds between 2008 to 2011 at four locations: Livingston Island, and the Southern Ocean outposts of Marion Island, Gough Island, and the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). Birds including penguins, brown skuas, southern giant petrels and kelp gulls were found to have picked up bacteria such as campylobacter and salmonella, according to the study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
Although these bacteria are not associated with high death rates in animals, their presence highlights the fragility of the polar ecosystems and shows that other, more dangerous pathogens could arrive on the continent. Study author Marta Cerdà-Cuéllar, a researcher at the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology in Barcelona, told CNN: "If these pathogens were able to arrive, so will others. We can say that any [Antarctic] bird or mammal could be affected by a zoonotic agent."
With increasing numbers of tourists potentially putting the animals at risk, the authors recommend tighter controls on visitors. Governments and scientific organisations need to do more to limit human impacts in Antarctica, including enforcing existing rules about carrying home human waste. The Antarctic Treaty protocol on Environmental Protection sets a series of principles that can be applied to human activity in Antarctica to reduce the human footprint in the white continent. However, some Subantarctic areas are not protected by the regulation and could become the entrance for pathogen agents in polar ecosystems.
"To prevent the arrival of pathogens, stricter bio-security measures will be necessary in order to limit the impact of humans in Antarctica," Cerdà-Cuéllar said.