News Health/Medical Why Bird Flu Poses a Growing Threat to Marine Life
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Why Bird Flu Poses a Growing Threat to Marine Life

By Fermín Koop, Dialogue Earth

May 15, 2024

A deadly strain of avian influenza, officially known as A (H5N1) clade 2.3.4.4b, is rapidly spreading across the global ocean. While bird flu was previously considered primarily a threat to poultry and secondarily a potential human pathogen, it has now become a terrifying, albeit still largely unquantified, menace to marine life.

Where is the Virus?

The current troubling form of the virus was first detected in Europe in autumn 2020. By the end of 2021, it had reached North America and subsequently spread to wild birds in every US state. The virus then extended southward, reaching the southern tip of South America by December 2022. It has now been detected in Antarctica, Africa, and Asia. Only the Pacific Islands, Australia, and New Zealand remain free of it.

Impact on Ocean Wildlife

Populations of wild birds have been devastated globally. In Peru’s protected areas alone, at least 100,000 birds from 24 species died after contracting the virus between November 2022 and mid-March 2023. Unlike previous strains, the current variant has infected a broader range of species, including 13 marine mammals. Mass die-offs have occurred, with over 17,000 southern elephant seal pups found dead on the Valdés Peninsula in Argentina. Sea lions have also suffered, with more than 24,000 deaths linked to the virus across Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.

For now, ocean researchers face a nervous wait to see where the virus appears next, how badly it harms the animals it infects, and how that reshapes our understanding of the threats to marine life.

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