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Antarctic penguins loaded with viruses

Australian scientists have shown for the first time that penguins living on a remote sub-Antarctic island are infected with viruses whose closest relatives are in the Northern Hemisphere.

Virologists from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR), made the discovery while studying penguin colonies on Macquarie Island.  The island, which is located between Australia and Antarctica, is home to rockhopper, royal and king penguins, which are often teeming with the globally distributed virus-transmitting seabird tick, Ixodes uriae.

The penguins were infected with a surprising number and diversity of viruses, known as arboviruses, according to team leader and QIMR Immunovirology Laboratory Head, Professor Andreas Suhrbier.

“Ticks carried by several migrating seabird species which visit Macquarie Island and all other continents of the world, are probably responsible for regular transport of seabird viruses around the world,” said Professor Suhrbier.

“We wanted to analyse these viruses given the rise in Antarctic tourism, the emergence and re-emergence of arboviral disease globally and the general concern for wildlife,” he said.

“We established that the penguin viruses’ closest relatives were found in the Northern hemisphere, including Asia, Europe and North America..

“It would appear that arboviruses have a free passage across the globe and that geographical isolation presents no real barrier to their spread.”

While there was no indication that the viruses posed an immediate health threat to humans, penguins or livestock, there may be concerns for tourists and climate change could also potentially lead to the viruses infecting new populations.

The Australian Antarctic Division currently maintains a station on Macquarie Island, with several tourist vessels calling in for short visits each Southern Hemisphere summer.

“Many of the visitors to Antarctica are frail and elderly which unfortunately makes them potentially excellent incubators for viruses to multiply and evolve,” said Professor Suhrbier.

“There is also evidence that climate change will lead to a change in the migration partners of birds and if this happens then the seabirds may carry viruses to new animal populations.”

Professor Suhrbier’s research was published in PLoS ONE and was funded by the Australian Antarctic Division.