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Identification of a Novel Adélie Penguin Circovirus at Cape Crozier (Ross Island, Antarctica)

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Understanding the causes of disease in Antarctic wildlife is crucial, as many of these species are already threatened by environmental changes brought about by climate change. In recent years, Antarctic penguins have been showing signs of an unknown pathology: a feather disorder characterised by missing feathers, resulting in exposed skin. During the 2018-2019 austral summer breeding season at Cape Crozier colony on Ross Island, Antarctica, we observed for the first time an Adélie penguin chick missing down over most of its body. A guano sample was collected from the nest of the featherless chick, and using high-throughput sequencing, we identified a novel circovirus. Using abutting primers, we amplified the full genome, which we cloned and Sanger-sequenced to determine the complete genome of the circovirus. The Adélie penguin guano-associated circovirus genome shares <67% genome-wide nucleotide identity with other circoviruses, representing a new species of circovirus; therefore, we named it penguin circovirus (PenCV). Using the same primer pair, we screened 25 previously collected cloacal swabs taken at Cape Crozier from known-age adult Adélie penguins during the 2014-2015 season, displaying no clinical signs of feather-loss disorder. Three of the 25 samples (12%) were positive for a PenCV, whose genome shared >99% pairwise identity with the one identified in 2018-2019. This is the first report of a circovirus associated with a penguin species. This circovirus could be an etiological agent of the feather-loss disorder in Antarctic penguins.

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