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Loons Dying From Avian Malaria Infection Is A Sign Of Climate Change: Report

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Malarial infection that caused loon death is due to climate change, a report has revealed.

To understand loon deaths, associate professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Tufts University Mark Pokras and his team have collected blood samples of the birds for their study.

For thirty years, most of the results of the blood tests have shown that majority of the birds have high mercury and lead content. They reasoned that this is due to environmental pollutions. However, more recent blood samples from dying loons now show that as much as 12 percent of blood samples are positive for the avian infection.

Last summer, the first loon death due to malaria infection was reported in Umbagog Lake in New Hampshire.

Pokras said that particular loon death should be further studied.

"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," Pokras said.

Ellen Martinsen, a research associate from Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who molecularly screened loon population with malaria parasite, expressed concern that this "susceptibility" is what killed the vulnerable birds.

She said these boreal birds do not have the sufficient defenses to counter malaria infection. She is afraid that if malaria is an emerging infectious disease in common loons, the population can significantly decline.

Scientists believe that climate change is to blame. When New England temperature rises, avian diseases also move northward, affecting boreal birds that have not adapted yet.

Experts have established that the continual loss of biodiversity is due to climate change. Species that cannot adapt to environmental changes can become extinct. In fact, a meta-analysis of 100 published studies showed that one in six of Earth species can die out if warming climate ensues.

"We are going to see more pathogens moving northward and getting into these susceptible wildlife species," said Martinsen.

Martinsen added that avian malaria infection is specific to birds and will not transmit any disease to humans. However, it may significantly affect other northern species like snowy owls, gray falcons, hawk owls, and chikadees.

Although no other loon deaths due to malaria infection were reported, Loon Preservation Committee (LPC) has instructed its volunteers to intensify its surveillance and be on the watch out for dead birds.

Photo: USFWS - Pacific | Flickr

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