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Diseases threaten Southern Ocean albatrosses

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Infectious diseases have the potential to cause rapid declines and extinction in vertebrate populations, and are likely to be spreading with increased globalisation and climate warming. In the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, no major outbreaks of infectious diseases have been reported to date, perhaps because of isolation and cold climate, although recent evidence suggests their presence. The major threat for the Southern Ocean environment is today considered to be fishing activities, and especially controversial long-lining which is assumed to be the cause of the major decreases in albatross and large petrel populations observed recently. Here we show that the worldwide spread of avian cholera is probably the major cause of the decrease on Amsterdam Island of the large yellow-nosed albatross (Diomedea chlororhynchos) population, which was previously attributed to long-line fishing. Another pathogenic bacterium, Erysipelas, was also present. The diseases affect mainly young chicks, with a cyclic pattern between years, but also kill adult birds. The outbreak of the disease probably occurred in the mid-1980s when chick mortality increased, adult survival decreased and the population started to decrease. The diseases may be currently threatening the very rare Amsterdam albatross (D. amsterdamensis) with extinction, and are probably also affecting sooty albatrosses (Phoebetria fusca). The spread of diseases to the most remote areas of the world raises major concern for the conservation of the Southern Ocean environment.

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This study was supported by Program no. 109 from IPEV (Institut Paul Emile Victor), and by a grant from the French Ministry of Environment (Contrat LC 191/00). I thank Dr. H. Morvan in charge of the biological analysis at LDA 22-Ploufragan, Dr. F. Milward for determining the serotype for the Erysipelas bacteria, Murielle Ghestem for help with data analysis, Laurent Zimmerman for help with field work, Dominique Besson for processing the data from the long-term data base, and Peter Ryan and Eric Woehler for their constructive comments.

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Correspondence to Henri Weimerskirch.

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Weimerskirch, H. Diseases threaten Southern Ocean albatrosses. Polar Biol 27, 374–379 (2004).

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