Researchers in Australia claim genes coded for antibiotic resistance have passed to bacteria in wildlife species such as sea lions and penguins, particularly animals with close exposure to humans. Dr. Michelle Power, from Macquarie University, presented the research findings this week at the International Conference of the Wildlife Disease Association.

In the late 1990s, Australian researchers discovered mobile genetic elements called integrons, which can transfer genes between different species of bacteria.

In a Macquarie University news release, Power expresses concern over the discovery of antibiotic resistance in naturally occurring bacteria of wild animals that have never been exposed to antibiotics.

Close contact with humans appears to be associated with the prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in wildlife. “We found the closer the contact between the wildlife with humans, the more animals within a population were carrying the antibiotic resistant bacteria,” Power says, noting that the phenomenon was most prevalent in captive wildlife such as sea lions and rock wallabies. “Some animals even in wild populations were carrying antibiotic resistant bacteria,” she adds, “a case being the little penguins of Sydney Harbor.”