Penguins All the Way in Antarctica Have Bird Flu, Too

Researchers have detected avian influenza present in both chinstrap and Adelie penguins in Antarctica. Pictured is an emperor penguin chick, a species that's also endemic to Antarctica. Paul Srouders/Getty Images

Penguins may be cute with their fashionable black-and-white coats and tipsy waddle, but life isn't all wine and roses for the birds. First off, they can't fly, although they can swim like the dickens. Second, they live in places like Antarctica. Third, they had a fabulously successful movie made about them and didn't see a dime of that Morgan Freeman money.

To make matters worse, it now appears that they have avian influenza, or bird flu, too. Specifically, researchers found that penguins living in Antarctica have their own distinct version of bird flu (H11N2), as well as another version (H5N5) that could have originated from North America and Eurasia. That's according to research published this summer in the Journal of Virology by the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza.

On the surface, this isn't much for you — or even your backyard chickens — to be concerned about. The H11N2 version of bird flu doesn't appear to be fatal or transmissible to mammals, and the H5N5 one seems to have "low pathogenicity," too. So why do we care about penguin flu?

As the researchers who wrote about the flu strains point out, it could mean that viruses can spread to the frozen continent much more easily than thought. Migratory birds, for instance, might get a certain flu strain and carry it to Antarctica where the penguins pick it up.

In addition, they think the unique H11N2 variety has only been in Antarctica for 49 to 80 years, meaning that it's evolved into a new strain fairly rapidly and that it has been able to survive in its environment, too.

Any way you look at it, it means that scientists are going to need to keep track of Antarctic penguins with the flu for the foreseeable future.