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article imageHow diseases travel on the wings of birds

By Tim Sandle     Dec 4, 2014 in Science
Unalakleet - Local Environmental Observer Network in Unalakleet, on the northwest coast of Alaska, has reported an alarming finding. Birds that are normally parasite-free have been found to contain parasites unknown to the territory.
The discovery came about when Victoria Kotongan, back in October 2012, was cleaning up some recently shot spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis). She found that each grouse harbored long, white worms.
Laboratory tests identified the worms as the nematode Splendidofilaria pectoralis. Hitherto, these parasite had previously only been found in blue grouse (Dendragapus obscurus pallidus), common to British Columbia, Canada. The nematode had not, until this event, been seen so far north and west.
Researchers, associated with the Ecological Society of America, are worried that the identification of the parasites is a sign of changing climate. Data suggests that animals are altering their seasonal movements and feeding patterns in response to changes to the climate. This is particularly so at the polar latitudes, where warming has been most rapid. Here, red foxes are spreading north into arctic fox territory; polar bears are moving ashore due to loss of sea ice; and arctic birds are undertaking longer migratory journeys.
Given that many animals are in association with parasites, and all carry microbes, this means that certain diseases could be finding new territories. For example, migratory birds can carry infectious agents over long distances. With one example, on St. Lawrence Island, in the Bering Sea, hundreds of crested auklets, thick-billed murres, northern fulmars died in November 2013 due to an avian cholera that genetic testing inferred had been transferred into the Alaskan region.
The concerns form the basis of a Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment journal article. The article is titled “Wildlife health in a rapidly changing North: focus on avian disease.”
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