Brazil's Mass Penguin Die-Off 'Natural', Say Scientists

© Ceclimar

In the last month, more than 700 Magellan penguins have washed up dead on the beaches of south Brazil. And although this discovery has captured international headlines and left scientists puzzled, a group of local biologists are now saying that the disturbing die-off is rooted in a natural cause -- though the details of its origin has yet to be determined.

According to Brazil's center for coastal studies, Ceclimar, nothing was found on the birds' bodies to indicate any human activity led to the deaths, but the bodies may be too decomposed to offer many definitive clues.

"The majority of specimens found last week were young animals and that are in the first year of life and are inexperienced. All had the same pattern of tissue autolysis (a stage of decomposition), were thin with high parasite load, showed no external injuries and no oil on the feathers," Ceclimar released in a statement, via G1 Globo.

What no one seems to have noted, however, is this is not an isolated occurrence. In fact, every summer for nearly a decade, along this and nearby stretches of coastline, hundreds of the endangered penguins have met a similarly mysterious fate.

Last summer, some 150 dead and dying Magellan penguins were found on the beaches of south Brazil, apparent victims of a unidentified oil spill. In the summer of 2010, hundreds of the birds were discovered starved to death on Brazilian beaches; summer 2009, more than a thousand were found dead in Chile; summer 2008, dozens of penguins were found in Uruguay; July 2007, hundreds of dead penguins washed ashore across South America; May 2006, hundreds of penguins were found dead in Argentina.

And the list of annual deaths goes on, at least as far back as 2001.

Despite the uncanny regularity of these Magellan penguin deaths, this appears to be the first year that experts have concluded the deaths as anything other than an unsolved mystery -- with the exception, perhaps, of one scientist who went on record with a rather alarming claim.

Following last summer's penguin deaths in Brazil, biologist Maurício Tavares told a Brazilian newspaper that he believed the annual die-offs on the endangered species were related to a clandestine operation to ship oil illegally across the Atlantic.

"These are illegal fleets are that frequently active at sea, but which we cannot detect," Tavares told Zero Hora. "We received some animals every year. Now, we have many animals all along the coast, revealing that this is not something small."

Ceclimar biologists are expected to release a more detailed report on the penguin deaths later this month.

Tags: Birds | Brazil | Endangered Species