Bird flu is decimating seal colonies. Scientists don’t know how to stop it

Brown Fur Seal - Creator: Joanne Goldby

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — 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.

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.

Seals and sea lions, in places as far apart as Maine and Chile, appear to be especially vulnerable to the disease, scientists said. The virus has been detected in seals on the east and west coasts of the U.S., 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.

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The virus can be controlled in domesticated animals, but it can spread unchecked in wildlife and marine mammals such as South America’s seals that lacked prior exposure to it have suffered devastating consequences, said Marcela Uhart, director of the Latin America program at the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at the University of California, Davis.

“Once the virus is in wildlife, it spreads like wildfire, as long as there are susceptible animals and species,” Uhart said. “Movement of animals spreads the virus to new areas.”

Scientists are still researching how the seals have contracted bird flu, but it is most likely from contact with infected seabirds, Uhart said.

High mortality has affected South American marine mammals consistently since the virus arrived late in 2022, and birds in Peru and Chile have died by the hundreds of thousands from the virus since then, she noted …


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