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Human-linked pathogens found across Antarctica for the first time

Infectious diseases are commonly passed along from humans to animals, but a new study is the first to document human-linked pathogens on the isolated continent of Antarctica. The researchers discovered antibiotic resistant microbes and other bacterial strains in bird poop, raising new concerns about the health of Antarctic bird colonies.

“It’s reasonable to think that the rapid increase of tourism has increased the risk of pathogen invasion,” said study co-author Professor Jacob González-Solís of the University of Barcelona. “Sooner or later the transmission of one of these pathogens is going to destroy a local population of birds.”

The investigation was focused on the droppings of hundreds of birds from 24 different species, such as rockhopper penguins and Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses. Between 2008 and 2011, the poop samples were collected at four sites across the Antarctic Ocean, including Livingston, Marion Island, Gough Island, and the Falkland Islands. These are all areas along bird migration routes that are frequented by tourists.

Within the fecal matter, the research team found traces of the bacteria Campylobacter jejuni, which is one of the most common sources of food poisoning in the United States and Europe. They also detected a strain of Salmonella that is typically associated with birds in urban areas, as well as an antibiotic-resistant strain of a gastrointestinal bug called Campylobacter lari.

Professor González-Solís predicts that, even though Salmonella and Campylobacter are not necessarily fatal, the pathogens could have “devastating consequences” to Antarctic bird colonies because they have never been exposed to these strains. According to the researchers, the bacteria could have originated from domestic poultry, tourist cruises, or from research centers.  

Kyle Elliott is an ornithologist and ecologist at McGill University, who was not involved in the research. He told Science magazine, “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.”

The study is published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.  

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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