Avian malaria is one of the most significant causes of mortality in penguins, according to the Columbian Park Zoo
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African penguin deaths
Credit: Columbian Park Zoo

Six African penguins at the Columbian Park Zoo have died, with three others in critical condition, after exhibiting symptoms of avian malaria.

"Avian malaria is one of the most significant causes of mortality in penguins, with rates as high as 50-90 percent," the Columbian Park Zoo director, Neil Dale, said in a news release.

"Despite the best efforts of our veterinarian and staff, who provided around the clock care administering anti-malarial medications and other intensive care measures, we were unable to stop the progression of the infections," Dale added about the six penguin deaths.

The parasitic disease is caused by protozoan plasmodium and can be transmitted through infected mosquitos.

African penguin deaths
Credit: Columbian Park Zoo

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According to the Lafayette, Indiana-based zoo, on Oct. 24, one of the penguins, named Flash, started to show symptoms of avian malaria — which is not transmittable to humans.

By Oct. 28, Flash had died despite the zoo's dedicated efforts to heal him.

After Flash died, the eight other African Penguins at the zoo started to show symptoms of avian malaria, with five of the birds — Raspberry, Zing, Chartreuse, Fozzie, and Zip — eventually passing away.

Widespread efforts are underway at the zoo to save the three remaining penguins.

"We've been working around the clock to save as many birds as possible," said head zookeeper Heather Woody in the news release.

"Our animal care team is absolutely heartbroken that something like this happened after all the months of hard work and preparation, but our focus now has to be on doing everything we can to help our penguins," she added.

African penguin deaths
Credit: Columbian Park Zoo

The Penguin Cove exhibit opened July 30, and the zoo is now working with its original design team to incorporate protection measures.

"We know that the community will share in our grief during this incredibly sad time. The entire zoo staff has been emotionally invested in this penguin colony and has felt the loss of each bird deeply," said Dale.