Devastating Impact of H5N1 Virus on Elephant Seals in Argentina

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In October, Dr. Marcela Uhart, with three decades of experience with elephant seals, encountered a haunting scene on Argentina’s Valdés Peninsula beaches. Instead of the usual bustling breeding season, the shores were littered with carcasses – a result of the H5N1 bird flu virus.

By that time, the virus had already claimed the lives of over 24,000 South American sea lions along the continent’s coasts within a year. Now, it was devastating the elephant seal population.

Pups of various ages, from newborns to fully weaned, were found either dead or dying at the high-tide line. Affected pups appeared lethargic, with foam oozing from their mouths and noses, painting a grim picture of the situation.

Dr. Uhart described the distressing sight as “an image from hell.” Following the initial discovery, she and a colleague meticulously documented the extent of the destruction, taking precautions like wearing protective gear and using bleach to prevent the spread of the virus.

Using drones to assess the impact from the cliffs above, the team made a shocking revelation – an estimated 17,400 seal pups, more than 95% of the colony’s young, had succumbed to the virus, highlighting the severity of the situation.

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