Friday, April 25, 2014

Feature Focus Friday - Zombie Coots and Dead Bald Eagles, UGA's Wilde Lab Investigates

Happy Friday All!  Its time for another Feature Focus Friday!  This week we leave you with deadly disease, zombie birds, and invasive plants!.... Seem Interesting?  Well then read ahead to learn more!
Sick Coot.  Photo Credit:  UGA Wilde Lab
The impacts of the invasive aquatic plants that we so often discuss are many, however, recent research sheds light on the potentially "deadly" impact such plants.  Thats right, we said DEADLY. A group from the University of Georgia's Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources is looking specifically at the sudden isolated deaths of various birds including "America's Bird", the Bald Eagle.  Susan Wilde and her lab of talented graduate students study Avian Vacuolar Myelinopathy (AVM), a neurological disease that has most often affected various waterbirds and their predators.
AVM positive eagle found dead.  Photo Credit:  UGA Wilde Lab
AVM primarily affects American Coots and subsequently, Bald Eagles who prey on those coots and it most often isolated in cases within the Southeastern United States. The disease causes birds to display neurological impairment including difficulty swimming, flying and a loss of the ability to "right" themselves ultimately leading to death in less than a week.  Truly, the "living dead" if you ask us! Only microscopic investigation of the "zombie"-like birds will reveal the true culprit (AVM) where lesions in the animals brain are a tell-tale sign. 
Microscopic investigation yields lesions in AVM positive birds.  Photo Credit:  UGA Wilde Lab
So what causes the disease you might ask?  Radioactive leak?  Man-made poison? Unidentified zombie yielding pandemic? Well, the cause is much more "natural" than you might think. The Wilde lab has confirmed through various lab and field studies that the cause of this nasty disease is actually a toxin produced by a previously unknown cyanobacteria. The deadly cyanobacteria is ingested when waterbirds like coots consume large amounts of vegetation, on which the cyanobacteria attaches. As coots begin to show symptoms of the disease, predatory birds like the bald eagle discover the easy meal and thus contract the disease themselves. Susan Wilde and her team have also shown that AVM most often exists in water bodies with dense populations of invasive submersed plant species, like hydrilla. The toxin actually accumulates in such plants, which is the direct pathway to the birds.
View of cyanobacteria growing on hydrilla (left) and isolated specimens (right)
Photo Credit:  UGA Wilde Lab
The Wilde Lab of UGA is currently doing a great deal of research regarding AVM.  Through a collaborative effort, the group is learning more about how the disease works, what groups are affected, and ways to monitor and track the potential spread of AVM cases throughout the southeast.     

To learn more about the history of AVM, click here.

To learn more about AVM and the research going on at the Wilde Lab, click here

For a list of collaborators, click here.

For more of the latest in aquatic plant management, science, and innovation, join us next week on the AERF Update!  Follow us on Facebook and Twitter and check out our Website.

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