Antartica is home to 12 million penguins. They thrive in the cold climate and isolated habitat, until more people starting to visit their home. The increase in tourists – to nearly 40,000 a year – brought multiple forms of bacteria that are making many species sick.
Scientists conducted a study on the droppings of 666 adult birds from 24 different species, for three years at four different locations across the Antarctic Ocean. The study found multiple strains of bacteria linked to humans.
The droppings tested positive for a salmonella strain that is typically only found in urban areas. A strain of Campylobacter jejuni, one that is the most common cause of food poisoning in the United States and Europe, was also detected. Another was a gastrointestinal bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics, used by human and veterinarians. These findings suggested that the strains were brought to the continent by humans.
It was the last place on earth not affected by reverse zoonosis – until now. Antartica was “the most pristine scientific laboratory” that allowed scientists to detect climate change and ocean health based on penguin populations. Reverse zoonosis is a human-to-animal disease transmission. Foreign bacteria strains were introduced to penguins on Antartica that led to many becoming sick.
“We often think of polar environments as being too cold and that disease transmission is not a huge threat, but the authors have clear evidence that … bacteria can spread widely in polar environments,” states ornithologist and ecologist Kyle Elliott at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
Sadly, the bacteria is spreading to other species as well, with concerns it may wipe out some that are near extinction. “The penguins found to be infected with human pathogens included macaroni penguins, king penguins and the near-threatened gentoo penguins. Other seabirds affected include southern giant petrels, kelp gulls and brown skuas,” states Daily Mail.
“Sooner or later the transmission of one of these pathogens is going to destroy a local population of birds,” states Professor Jacob González-Solís of the University of Barcelona.
With over 40,000 tourists visiting the continent each year, each person is asked to sanitize their footwear to decrease the chance of spreading disease. However, more measures need to be taken to reduce the bacteria that is brought into the country by tourists.
Andrea Powell is an animal enthusiast that resides in West Michigan. When not writing, she is exploring the great outdoors with her dogs and horses.