Bird Flu Continues to Wreak Havoc, Killing Seals Worldwide

Tens of thousands of seals, sea lions have died, and scientists aren't sure how to slow the spread
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 25, 2024 2:20 PM CDT
Bird Flu Continues to Wreak Havoc, Killing Seals Worldwide
A gray seal swims in Casco Bay, off of Portland, Maine, in this Sept. 15, 2020, file photo.   (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, files)

Avian influenza is killing tens of thousands of seals and sea lions in different corners of the world, disrupting ecosystems and flummoxing scientists who don't see a clear way to slow the devastating virus. The worldwide bird flu outbreak that began in 2020 has led to the deaths of millions of domesticated birds and spread to wildlife all over the globe, per the AP. This virus isn't thought to be a major threat to humans, but its spread in farming operations and wild ecosystems has caused widespread economic turmoil and environmental disruptions. The virus was detected in mainland Antarctica for the first time in February.

  • Where: Seals and sea lions, in places as far apart as Maine and Chile, appear to be especially vulnerable, scientists said. The virus has been detected in seals on the east and west coasts of the US, leading to deaths of more than 300 seals in New England and a handful more in Puget Sound in Washington. The situation is even more dire in South America, where more than 20,000 sea lions have died in Chile and Peru and thousands of elephant seals have died in Argentina.
  • Ecosystem chaos: The deaths of seals and sea lions disrupt ecosystems where the marine mammals serve as key predators near the top of the food chain. Seals help keep the ocean in balance by preventing overpopulation of the fish species they feed on.
  • Cause: Scientists are still researching how the seals contracted bird flu, but it's most likely from contact with infected seabirds, says Marcela Uhart of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis. Some scientists and environmental advocates say there could be a link between the outbreaks and warming oceans from climate change. Warmer sea temperatures off northern Chile decrease the population of forage fish, and that makes sea lions weaker and more susceptible to disease, says Liesbeth van der Meer of the environmental group Oceana.
  • More worries: Many species affected, such as South American sea lions and Southern elephant seals, have relatively stable populations, but scientists worry about the possibility of the virus jumping to more jeopardized animals. Scientists have said bird flu might have played a role in the deaths of hundreds of endangered Caspian seals in Russia last year.
More here. (More seals stories.)

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