Lab Canada

Researchers to investigate mysteries behind avian cholera

Ottawa, ON – Avian cholera is the most critical infectious disease affecting wild North American waterfowl. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has just awarded Carleton University Professor Mark Forbes and a team of researchers more than half a million dollars over the next three years to study this bacterial disease in Arctic breeding waterfowl.

“Avian cholera can be a swift and deadly killer: infected birds can die within a day or two,” says Dr Forbes. “Birds that survive transmit the disease to other birds. Transmission events also occur across bird species, which is troubling given that more than 190 bird species have been shown to harbour avian cholera. It is vitally important to understand how this disease is transmitted if we want to predict its impact on populations and its origin and spread geographically.” It is possible that wetlands during the Arctic summer act as suitable reservoirs for the disease and heighten local epidemics.

The focal species of interest, the common eider, is hunted for food and its eggs and featherdown are also collected. Ongoing deaths in the Arctic would pose a risk to the viability of breeding populations and have a major impact on people from Canadian and other northern communities who rely on those birds for their livelihood.

Grant Gilchrist, a lead co-investigator on the project and a research scientist with Environment Canada, will travel to Canada’s Arctic with a team of researchers for two months each summer to study the common eiders. Gilchrist and his collaborators studied the species extensively before any outbreaks so baseline data on survival and productivity before the cholera outbreak is available.

“This provides our team with a unique opportunity to observe the impact of the disease on a breeding population and avian community,” say Dr Forbes. “Our research will be invaluable to the government officials for its communications value alone: that is, reporting other national and international sites experiencing dieoffs or known outbreaks of cholera.”

The research team includes Dr Catherine Soos, who is studying serotypes and strains of avian cholera (Environment Canada, University of Saskatchewan); Joel Bêty, an expert in waterfowl biology (University of Québec à Rimouski); Oliver Love, who brings advanced stress physiology and immunometrics to the team (University of Windsor); and Sebastien Descamps, an expert in avian demography (University Tromso, Norway).

Mark Forbes is a biology professor and associate vice-president (research). He is also Canada Research Chair in Ecological Parasitology Wildlife Conservation, investigating how parasitic relationships evolve. He argues that it is important to know how parasites affect other species because over half of all organisms live a parasitic lifestyle and that can harm individuals, populations and the entire ecosystem.