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December 20, 2014

A boom in Antarctic tourism could introduce new, infectious diseases to the continent’s penguin colonies, scientists warned in a new study released Friday.

More than 37,000 tourists trekked out to the frozen continent in 2013, more than quadrupling the number of visitors two decades earlier, according to a report in New Scientist first spotted by The Atlantic.

Researchers warned that these well-intentioned visitors could be the unwitting carriers of foreign pathogens. Avian flu, for instance, has caused deadly outbreaks among photogenic colonies of gentoo penguins, killing hundreds in 2006 and 2008. Researchers say that the origin of the virus remains unknown, and that it could also have been introduced by migratory birds flocking to the region.

“The effects of both a growing tourism industry and research presence will not be without consequences,” Wray Grimaldi of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand told the New Scientist.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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