Catastrophic avian influenza reaches the Galapagos for the first time
Almost 200 years on from when Charles Darwin observed his Galapagos Islands finches, which became the emblems of his theory of evolution, birds in the region are again in the news for what many scientists warn could be the source of the next pandemic.
Three out of five dead birds have tested positive for avian influenza (H5N1), according to the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), which is the first time the deadly virus has made it to the Archipelago. It's a worrying sign for scientists, who have sounded alarms since the pathogen moved from a seasonal concern to a potential pandemic spillover in 2021.
The birds, two frigate birds and one red-footed booby, were confirmed H5N1 casualties after testing on the Ecuadorian mainland.
"Preliminarily, of the five specimens examined, three of them have tested positive for H5N1 avian influenza," said Galapagos National Park in a statement.
In the last two years, more than half a billion farmed birds have died or been culled due to the virus, and conservative estimates suggest hundreds of thousands of wild birds across the globe have died. It's also killed thousands of sea lions in South America. Skunks, mink, dogs and some humans have also been infected.
While H5N1 has now spanned the globe, its presence in the Galapagos puts a spotlight on how difficult this virus is to contain, particularly since it is so prevalent in shorebirds and migratory birds.
In the Galapagos Islands, 80% of birds are endemic. The arrival of H5N1 makes all bird species incredibly vulnerable.
While avian influenza has been circulating for decades, intensive farming and virus mutations have seen it spread in novel ways, and scientists have sounded the alarm it's the most likely source of a new pandemic.
To date, Antarctica and Australia are the only continents without reported avian influenza outbreaks among wild birds.
Source: Galapagos Conservation Trust