Climate change might be behind an unusual disease outbreak among Antarctic icefish.
For about a decade, University of Oregon biologists John Postlethwait and Thomas Desvignes have been visiting the West Antarctic Peninsula. They study icefish, a unique group of fish that has adapted to the harsh polar environment. But on a 2018 field excursion, they noticed something especially strange: a large number of those fish were afflicted with grotesque skin tumors.
Collaborating with virologists and pathologists, they determined the tumors were the result of a parasitic illness, an unprecedented outbreak on a scale never seen before near Antarctica.
Warming waters and melting ice might have contributed to the outbreak in this particularly vulnerable ecosystem, the team reported in the journal iScience.
According to Desvignes, chief scientist during the research expedition and lead author on the study:
“When life conditions become challenging, animals become more prone to disease.”
During their 2018 field season, they visited a small fjord on the West Antarctic Peninsula that’s usually filled with ice at that time of year. Finding it clear, they ventured in and began fishing.
“As soon as we got the first trawl back on deck, we realized that one species was really abundant, and a lot of them had big tumors. When we saw that, we immediately realized we had to do something.”
Arvind Varsani, an Arizona State University virologist who specializes in Antarctic animals and a co-author on the study, said:
“Very little is known about diseases associated with these animals.”
The researchers also worked with University of Oregon undergraduate Chloe DaMommio to create a short graphic novel about the research, available to read for free online.
(Featured image credit: Chloe DaMommio/University of Oregon)