Friday, July 14, 2006

Bird flu draws local scientists to Arctic shore

Bird flu draws local scientists to Arctic shore
By Robert Knox, Globe Correspondent | July 13, 2006

Shorebird specialists from a Plymouth -based conservation science organization are heading for Alaska this month to look for signs of avian flu in migrating birds.

Scientists will be on the lookout for the possibility that migratory shorebirds may take the dangerous pathogen from Asia to Alaska, where it would be transmitted to migratory birds that return to this region and other parts of the Americas.

``It's like the early-warning system for bird flu," said Trevor Lloyd-Evans , a bird scientist at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences . To date, no sign of bird flu has been found in the Western Hemisphere.

Shorebirds -- golden plovers , red knots , buff-breasted sandpipers , phalaropes among them -- make some of the longest migratory flights of any species, flying thousands of miles to breed on the Alaskan coast during the brief Arctic summer. There they take advantage of rich food resources (think crustaceans and sea worms), a protected environment, and the polar region's 24-hour-long summer days.

They then head south to winter on South Shore coastal areas and beyond, with some going as far as the tip of South America. Because of this long -distance migratory pattern, the possibility of spreading bird flu in the Americas through an Alaskan connection has to be considered, Lloyd-Evans said.

Specialists say avian flu has spread in the Eastern Hemisphere, reaching areas in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific islands, through the legal or illegal importation of domestic fowl. But some populations of wild birds have also caught the infection, Lloyd-Evans said.

Last year , 10 percent of the world's population of bar head geese was wiped out in an infestation at a lake in western China . Three weeks ago, Russian authorities reported a deadly outbreak of bird flu in the Tuva region of Siberia, north of Mongolia .

Scientists believe wild birds can transmit the infection for short distances only, Lloyd-Evans said. However, they are not sure how far that distance is.

While bird flu has been disastrous for birds and local economies (millions of domestic fowl have been destroyed in Asia), it would pose a serious risk to human health if the deadly strain of avian flu (type AH5N1 ) mutates into a form that can be passed from person to person.

``We wouldn't be worried about chickens any more, we'd be worried about people," Lloyd-Evans said.

Scientists do not know how likely it is that that kind of mutation will take place. The last time it is known to have happened produced the so-called Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 , which killed an estimated 20 million to 40 million people worldwide.

This trip to Alaska is not the first for the Manomet scientists. They have spent summers before in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's North Slope as part of an effort to study the status of shorebird populations in a coastal area where Congress has debated permitting drilling for oil.

Lloyd-Evans will take part in a monitoring program led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service . Team members will capture birds with nets, weigh and swab them, and send the swab to a federal lab.

Manomet has also been swabbing birds caught in its spring banding program at Plymouth. The difficult part, Lloyd-Evans said, is putting the nets in the right place.

Manomet scientist Stephen Brown also has his work cut out for him this summer. He will spend six weeks in the Arctic Refuge, relying on an inflatable dinghy to help him survey the refuge's 100 -mile coastline and document the relative value of estuaries and lagoons for staging shorebirds. Brown's team will count shorebird populations at the sites.

The effort is part of Manomet's ongoing program to evaluate which areas are most important for shorebirds and help protect areas critical for species like the golden plover, which are declining by 7 percent each year.

Brown and two other scientists will disembark in coastal mudflats, carrying 60 -pound packs through waist -deep water to set up camp in tundra wetlands -- great habitat for the birds, Brown said, though tough on humans. But the scientists' summer camp out in Alaskan mudflats pales in comparison to ``the remarkable long -distance flying" of shorebirds, Brown said, some of which fly 20,000 miles a year.

Robert Knox can be contacted at

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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