by Charlie Kammerer
Bird flu scares have caused a lot of uproar among scientists and laypeople alike. The Influenza A virus can be transmitted from birds to humans causing very serious symptoms but has not been shown to be transmitted from human to human. The paramyxovirus has also been found in penguins, specifically the Adelie variety in Antarctica. Austin and Webster set out to study the possible spread of the avian flu to the most abundant mammal in the region, the Weddell seal.
Weddell seals are one of the most well studied arctic animals due to their abundance and easy of observation. The mammals digs holes in the ice sheets with their teeth in order to create a consistent source of air. This is helpful in order to hunt under the ice which is safer from predators. Mothers also keep their pups on the ice shelf near the hole to hide from predators more easily. The pups have white fur that helps them blend in to the snow covered ice sheet. The mother seals have one of the highest concentration of milk fats among known mammals which may be the reason for their stout stature. Another reason for their ease of study is how vocal the seals are.
Austin and Webster’s tested for the presence of the avian flu antibodies in both birds and weddell seals. They did this in order to confirm that local bird populations had the disease and were testing to see if the disease had transferred to mammals in the area. The Weddell seal was the best candidate for this, but despite its abundance, there were no cases of avian flu in the seals found. The virus antibodies were found in Adelie penguins and skua however. This is alarming considering the large number of penguins that live in Antarctica. Although the only human population is scientists, the large numbers of bird could act as a reservoir for the disease. In the future, more mammals should be tested for the avian flu virus and avian flu antibodies in order to see if the disease is infecting animals other than birds as this could have a large impact on human populations.