BEACON TRANSCRIPT – Researchers have discovered that contrary to popular belief, loons are affected by avian malaria, which is just another sign of the dreaded climate change.
This is the first time researcher Mark Pokras, who is an emeritus associate professor from the Tufts University, was able to uncover the reason why loons were dying, after decades of observing them closely. During these thirty years, he has collected thousands of samples of blood from the birds. In this way, he found that they were poisoned with either mercury or lead, but also other pollutants.
However, Pokras and his team were at least grateful the loons were not killed by avian malaria, like their counterparts from tropical climates. Loons usually inhabit New England lakes. Unfortunately, this aspect has taken a different turn recently.
Along with Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute research associate Ellen Martinsen who is based in Vermont, Pokras stumbled upon different malaria parasites present in some loon blood sampled he had collected a couple of years ago. It appeared that twelve percent of the samples were positive, in spite of the fact that not all are thought to be infected.
This was followed by the first death of a loon caused by avian malaria, on the Umbagog Lake, which is situated in New Hampshire and Maine. Scientists have yet to find other deceased birds, but they expect more bodies to show up.
Pokras has stated that
“I wouldn’t call it alarm bells but it certainly is raising eyebrows and emphasizing the need to look more. It may certainly be this bird that died was unlucky or maybe it had some immune deficiency that made it more susceptible to the parasite. I doubt it but we don’t know that yet.”
Martinsen was the one who screened loons for malaria by using molecular methods. In her opinion, such birds may not be equipped with sufficient defenses in order to be protected against this type of infection.
Numerous scientists believe there is a link between climate change and the presence of malaria in loons. They explained that New England has recorded rising temperatures, and thus the parasite which is commonly found in birds inhabiting Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia, has been moving north.
Humans are safe from the parasite since it only affects birds, but researchers are worried about other species such as boreal chickadees, northern hawk owls, gyrfalcons and snowy owls.
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