A trip to Antarctica might not be a dream vacation for everyone, but it’s on the list for many who are clearly willing to trek to there. While tourists are busy exploring the scenery and greeting the penguins who live there, scientists are raising concerns about how exposure to us could increase their risk of contracting infectious diseases.
Scientists and disease experts believe the immune systems of penguins, and other species in the region, are less able to deal with pathogens that are commonplace in the rest of the world because they’ve been isolated for so long with few visitors.
Since we first set foot there about 200 years ago, our presence has continued to increase. According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, 37,000 tourists ventured to the region during the 2013-2014 season alone, up from an estimated 8,000 about two decades ago.
“The effects of both a growing tourism industry and research presence will not be without consequences,” Wray Grimaldi of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, told New Scientist. “Penguins are highly susceptible to infectious diseases.”
Grimaldi, who was the lead author of a new study published in the journal Polar Biology addressing this issue, has based the conclusion partially on studies of captive penguins going back to the 1950s who were found to be vulnerable to diseases including Salmonella, E. coli, West Nile virus and the Avian pox virus.
In the wild, Avian pox caused a mass die-off of an estimated 400 Gentoo penguins, one of Antarctica’s four species of penguin, in 2006. That was followed by another die-off two years later. Scientists note that some diseases may have been brought there by migratory birds, but they suspect we’re also responsible.
The possibility of a disease outbreak also adds to the threats penguins are already facing as a result of a warming world and a growing human population. Tourists might add to the equation, but they’re not the sole bearers of responsibility for the threats that could potentially impact their survival.
As the study notes, “pollution, increased connectivity, and global environmental change affecting pathogens and vectors at high latitudes are likely to drive future disease emergence in this region.”
Climate change, which is already believed to be a major threat to the future survival of penguins, is also expected to result in more species coming into the area who could potentially bring diseases with them. It could also make them more vulnerable, affecting their overall health, by altering their habitat and impacting the availability of food sources they rely on.
“Climate change may result in a number of stressors that make it more difficult for penguin populations to deal with disease,” said Claire Christian of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.
The study’s authors hope that more monitoring efforts will be undertaken to keep watch on infectious diseases in penguins who live in Antarctica and as we increase our presence there and the climate continues to change and that the nations involved in the Antarctic Treaty will put protective measures in place.