A mysterious disease that has already claimed scores of endangered yellow-eyed penguin chicks in New Zealand has scientists working non-stop to determine the cause.
The penguins, native to New Zealand, stand lower than knee height, have pale yellow eyes and yellow feathers around the head.
According to estimates by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, there are about 2,400 of these adult birds left. The animals are considered nationally endangered, the country’s highest risk level.
Conservation experts say the mainland colony’s population has declined by 75% since 2008, meaning only about 200 breeding pairs remain. They are in danger of becoming extinct within two decades.
The mysterious respiratory disease was first seen in 2019 in 20 newly hatched chicks and they were taken to the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital for treatment.
“They could not hold their heads up and were gasping for breath with staring eyes,” said Dr. Lisa Argilla, director of the wildlife hospital, said this week.
“It was heartbreaking to see these little chicks in such a critical condition.
“All the chicks that showed respiratory problems died; there was nothing we could do to save them.”
According to Argilla, a third of 150 yellow-eyed penguin chicks brought to the hospital in the 2020 breeding season died due to breathing problems.
Scientists now believe they may have found the cause of the rare disease.
Prof. Jemma Geoghegan, an evolutionary virologist and professor at Otago University, is part of a team of specialists investigating the disease.
“The wildlife hospital staff did everything they could to prevent it, but without knowing what the cause is, it’s very difficult to manage,” said Geoghegan.
Scientists tested tissue samples from the dead penguin chicks with sequencing technology similar to that used to identify the coronavirus behind Covid-19.
“There are two diseases that we investigated and we found two viruses that we think are probably responsible,” Geoghegan said.
“The team identified a new girovirus and a new megrivirus.”
Those two diseases are thought to have claimed about 25% of yellow-eyed penguin chicks’ lives – about 50 each year – in recent breeding seasons, Geoghegan said.
“We have identified what we think may be the cause; however, much research is still needed to determine whether we can prevent or treat the disease.”
Argilla says chicks under five days old are being taken from their nests to the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital for the time being, where they can be hand-raised away from the risk of infection.
“Last year, the animal hospital was able to take 90% of the chicks back to their nests. About 142 chicks were given a second chance.
“Had they been left in the nest, most of them would probably have died from one of the two diseases.”
The hospital director says it is an “insane project” to raise dozens of chicks by hand with up to 10 people needed every day to give the chicks their five daily meals.
According to Argilla, vets, nurses, zookeepers and conservationists came from all over New Zealand to help with the task.
“We hope to find a vaccine as soon as possible to help save the chicks.”