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Botulism killing several of Lake Erie birds

Sunday, December 29, 2002

By The Associated Press

ERIE -- Researchers say they've counted more than 14,000 birds killed by avian botulism along the Lake Erie shoreline this year, which could mark the deadliest outbreak since the disease was discovered four years ago.

According to the federal Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., officials in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Ontario, Canada, have reported finding as many as 14,500 birds that died from Type E avian botulism.

Wildlife health officials warned the toll could be even higher because state agencies are collecting only a fraction of the birds that die.

"I think what we have seen is the tip of the iceberg," said Ward Stone, head of the New York Department of Conservation's Pathology Laboratory. "If you look at the loons and other birds, they are at the top point of the triangle. Below them you have all the fish and other species. It is a huge mass."

The worst of the outbreak should be over for now because the birds most prone to the botulism, such as loons and mergansers, have migrated, said Eric Obert, a researcher with Pennsylvania Sea Grant.

Scientists discovered an avian botulism outbreak on the shores of Lake Erie in 1999. There have been two dozen outbreaks there this summer and fall.

Researchers are still trying to figure out what causes outbreaks of the rare strain of botulism. It has flourished along with nonnative species such as the round goby, a bottom-feeding fish, zebra mussels and quagga mussels. All three species are believed to have arrived in the lake on freighters from the Black and Caspian seas; the mussels showed up 10 years ago, the goby in the past four years.

Researchers believe the mussels concentrate the botulism, which has always been in the lake, and are in turn eaten by the bottom-feeding gobies. The gobies are then eaten by other fish, salamanders and birds.

Warmer water in the lake may also be a factor in the outbreaks. Lake Erie typically freezes over in winter, but didn't last year.

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