Campylobacter bacteria found in Antarctic penguins

7 04 2009
Macararoni Penguin (photo by Jerzy Strzelecki)

Macararoni Penguin (photo by Jerzy Strzelecki)

A team of Swedish researchers has just come out with a report of Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni) bacteria detected in Macaroni Penguin chicks on Bird Island in the Antarctic. C. jejuni is a common bacterium found in wild and domestic bird species, and can cause gastrointestinal disease in humans who most often contract it from contaminated chicken. Birds do not typically show any signs of disease, and are more often carriers of the bacterium.Since C. jejuni, like most bacteria, includes many strains, the researchers set out to determine the source of the particular strain isolated from the penguin chicks. They discovered that the bacteria in the penguins is genetically identical to that recovered from domestic animal and human sources.So what does this mean? The genetic profile of the bacteria suggests that the penguins are being exposed to a human source of the germ. The researchers speculate on a few troubling possibilities: a research station on Bird Island was discharging toilet wastes directly into the surrounding waters at the time of the study (it is unclear if this practice is still in place on the island). Penguins foraging in those waters may have acquired human source bacteria that way. Alternatively, ships passing through the region may have discharged contaminated material. Finally, wide-ranging birds such as albatross may have traveled to foraging waters in more populous regions of the southern oceans and brought C. jejuni back upon their return to Bird Island.

Location of Bird Island, South Georgia (off the Antarctic Peninsula)

Location of Bird Island, South Georgia (off the Antarctic Peninsula)

In any case, these results drive home the idea that even the most seemingly remote places in the world are not immune from human impacts. Though this particular pathogen is not likely to cause illness in the penguins, it does demonstrate that there is some pathway for human source bacteria to reach these seabird populations, and the next bacterium may not be so benign. It seems a common sense measure, at least, for scientists studying these isolated ecosystems not to discharge their toilets into their study areas, and SEANET hopes that this practice has since been abandoned. The irony is that in attempting to learn more about these wild places, ostensibly to help save them, we may sometimes do more harm than good, and we would do well, in all things, to limit our impacts no matter where our travels take us.

Read the full article on this topic at the CDC’s website on Emerging Infectious Disease.



One response

7 04 2009

Wow, this is indeed troubling. I Googled this British research station and their web site boasts of how they bunk multiple people to a room, saving power and fuel. They collect rainwater for their showers. I can’t imagine why they haven’t addressed sewage treatment…such an obvious thing.

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