New Zealand scientist saving Antarctic penguin colonies from bird flu by collecting poo

A Kiwi scientist collecting penguin poo in a bid to save Antarctic colonies from a dangerous strain of bird flu says "once you get over the smell, it's fantastic".

Microbial ecologist Craig Cary hopes the first-ever baseline survey of penguin guano will help prepare for the arrival of bird flu in Antarctica, and limit damage on ecosystems already under stress from climate change.

Cary was alerted to the threat of bird flu last July after reading a report from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research working group that concluded the virus might reach the Antarctic during the 2022-2023 season.

With the support of Waikato University, Environmental Research Institute and Antarctica New Zealand, Cary travelled to Cape Adare to monitor one of the largest Adelie penguin colonies in the world, and collect 100 poo samples.

"It's an amazing experience, once you get over the smell it's fantastic," he said.

Avian influenza is migrating south, and scientists predict it will arrive on the frozen continent by 2024, carried by migratory birds like skuas or terns.

The skua is one of Antarctica's top avian predators and it is already bad news for penguins.

"The kicker here is that the arrival of these birds is coincident with the breeding of the penguins, so the largest gathering of penguins is when they're breeding, raising the young and fledging," Cary said.

He said a penguins' habit of pooing near their nests and walking through poo while going to feed means conditions are ripe for a virus to rip through the densely-packed colonies.

"If we look north and look at what's happened to the birds to the north, it could be all bets are off, it could be devastating to these colonies."

Cary has only collected samples from one colony and hopes it's just the beginning.

"My hope is we can initiate a New Zealand-led international effort in the Ross Sea area to get other national programmes to get together and start monitoring all the other colonies."

Because it's not a matter of if but when the virus will reach Antarctica's penguins, but detecting it early at least gives scientists a chance at slowing its spread. 

Cary said there was a variety of mitigation solutions being explored, including existing and newly developed vaccines.

"Right now, we must be prepared for what is inevitable, and look at every possible mitigation strategy being used off-continent."