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Wildlife and Landscape Science News

Winter 2011

Wildlife Populations

Characterization of avian influenza viruses (Newfoundland)

Great black-backed gull | © Greg Robertson, Environment Canada
Great black-backed gull
© Greg Robertson, Environment Canada

The role of wild birds in the global transmission of avian influenza virus (AIV) is still not well understood.

Much of the focus has been in detecting intercontinental mixing across the Pacific Ocean, with Alaska being the likely entry point to North America. Entry from the Atlantic is also possible as tens of millions of marine birds that breed in northwestern Europe migrate west to overwinter in the Northwest Atlantic. Conversely, some Canadian breeders overwinter in European and West African waters.

Since 2006, Environment Canada researchers have been working with Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Guelph, sampling large numbers of seabirds and assessing their possible role in the global dynamics of AIV. The prevalence of virus in marine birds is lower than that seen in waterfowl.

The most interesting discovery was the isolation of an AI virus from a juvenile great black-backed gull that had half its sequences from North American lineages and the other half from Eurasian sources. This result confirms a transmission route for Eurasian strains of AIV across the Atlantic, and is corroborated by previous banding studies that show black-backed gulls do cross from Newfoundland to winter in Europe.

Results were published in the following scientific journals:

Granter, A., M. Wille, H. Whitney, G.J. Robertson, D. Ojkic and A.S. Lang. 2010. The genome sequence of an H11N2 avian influenza virus from a thick-billed murre (Uria lomvia) shows marine-specific and regional patterns of relationships to other viruses. Virus Genes 41:224–230.

Wille, M. G.J. Robertson, H. Whitney, D. Ojkic and A.S. Lang. 2011. Reassortment of American and Eurasian genes in an influenza isolated from a great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), a species demonstrated to move between these regions. Archives of Virology 156:107-115.

Environment Canada’s STAGE (Strategic Technology Applications of Genomics in the Environment) program has been a key funding source for this research.

Contact: Dr. Greg Robertson (709) 772-2778, profile of Greg Robertson


Four decades of northern gannets in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Northern gannet colony | © Richard Cotter
Northern gannet colony
© Richard Cotter

The largest colony of northern gannets in the world is on Bonaventure Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec. The population health of this colony has been monitored for more than 40 years. Every five years, eggs are collected and analyzed for contaminant concentrations, most recently in 2009.

The large-scale dispersal of DDT in the 1960s had greatly affected the population’s size due to eggshell thinning and resulting breakage. After DDT was banned, successful hatching and productivity resumed. Since 1976, the number of pairs has increased from 16,000 to almost 60,000.

Contaminants found in the eggs include organochlorines, mercury and brominated flame retardants. Between 1968 and 2009, most contaminants decreased in concentration. (Brominated flame retardants have only been measured since 2004 and the sampling is too small to observe a trend.)

The population continues to grow but is expected to stabilize over the next few years as the birds occupy all the available habitat.

These findings were presented at the 37th Aquatic Toxicity Workshop (October 2010):

Louise Champoux, Jean-François Rail, Gilles Chapdelaine and Raphaël Lavoie (Queen’s University). Temporal trends of organochlorines, brominated flame retardants and mercury in eggs of Northern gannet from the Gulf of St Lawrence, 1968-2009. 37th Aquatic Toxicity Workshop, Toronto, ON.

Related publication:

Lavoie, R.A., L. Champoux, J.F. Rail and D.R. Lean. 2010. Organochlorines, brominated flame retardants and mercury levels in six seabird species from the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Canada): relationships with feeding ecology, migration and molt. Environ Pollut. 58(6): 2189-99.

Contact: Louise Champoux (418) 648-4657, profile of Louise Champoux


Northern peregrine falcon survey update

Peregrine falcon | © photos.com
Peregrine falcon

Three national parks were surveyed by helicopter for peregrine falcons and other raptors (e.g., golden eagles and rough-legged hawks) in July and August of 2010. Data collected from Wood Buffalo, Ivvavik and Tuktut Nogait parks during the birds’ summer breeding season were part of the Canadian Peregrine Falcon Survey, a national monitoring effort that takes place every five years.

The peregrine populations in the two northern parks appear stable, with eight occupied territories in Ivvavik and 22 in Tuktut Nogait. A record 40 sites were discovered in and around Wood Buffalo. Most of the increase in population was seen on the Canadian Shield to the east of Wood Buffalo and the Slave River.

These results will be combined with results from across Canada to evaluate the overall status of peregrine falcons and any population-level impacts of the ongoing harvest for falconry in the United States.

Funding for the surveys was provided by Parks Canada and Alberta Conservation Association.

Contact: Dr. Geoff Holroyd (780) 951-8689


Satellite transmitters delineate black scoter migration

Researchers are tracking more than 50 black scoters using satellite transmitters. They have discovered the scoters’ round-trip migration covers 9,700 kilometres (km). This is a remarkable journey for a species not recognized for its flying abilities.

The transmitters show that the species’ breeding range extends into the Northwest Territories. Black scoters breeding there travel over 5,300 km each spring from their wintering to their breeding area. They leave the coastal waters of South Carolina in a north-easterly direction along the coast to Baie des Chaleurs, Quebec (~2,500 km) where they spend a few weeks in the spring. They leave Baie des Chaleurs in mid to late May and travel northwest to James Bay (~1,000 km). From there, they continue northwest to their breeding area (~1,800 km) in the Northwest Territories.

After breeding (usually in early to mid August), they undertake a molt migration to James Bay where they stay until late October. They then fly directly south to the Atlantic Coast and most spend a few weeks in the Nantucket area before reaching their wintering site: a journey of about 4,400 km that is nearly 1,000 km shorter than in the spring.

This is a cooperative project between Environment Canada and the USGS (Dr. Matt Perry).

Contacts: Dr. Jean-Pierre Savard (418) 648-3500, profile of Jean-Pierre Savard and Scott Gilliland (709) 772-2013


Habitats and Ecosystems

Seabirds transport more than nutrients inland

Map showing the location of Tern Island in the Canadian High Arctic Seabirds are known to transport nutrients from the ocean to the land through dropped food, feces and decomposition. Depending on diet, seabirds also transfer metals absorbed from the marine ecosystem. Recent research suggests that metals may be used to track seabird population dynamics, and that some metal tracers may even be species-specific.

The research team investigated whether two seabirds feeding at different trophic levels vary in their potency as biovectors of contaminants, particularly metals. The team analyzed sediment core samples from two ponds on a small island in the Canadian Arctic. One pond receives inputs almost exclusively from Arctic terns, which primarily eat fish. The other pond is frequented by common eiders, mainly consumers of molluscs.

Arctic tern | Photo: Mark MalloryThere were significant differences between the samples, clearly aligned with the birds' diets. Higher concentrations of metals, such as mercury and cadmium, were found in the site inhabited by terns. Higher amounts of lead, manganese and aluminum were found in the eider site.

Common eider | Photo: Mark MalloryThe predominance of large seabird colonies on every continent suggests that similar processes are operating along coastlines worldwide.

Results were published in the scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA:

Michelutti, N., J.M. Blais, M.L. Mallory, J. Brash, J. Thienpont, L.E. Kimpe, M.S.V. Douglas and J.P. Smol. 2010. Trophic position influences the efficacy of seabirds as metal biovectors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(23): 10543-10548.

Read more in ScienceDaily: Coastal Birds Carry Toxic Ocean Metals Inland

This research was funded primarily by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Natural Resources Canada’s Polar Continental Shelf Program.

Contact: Dr. Mark Mallory (867) 975-4637, profile of Mark Mallory


Avian cholera in Canada’s Arctic: three-year investigation begins

Eiders gathering on the ice | Photo: Grant Gilchrist
Eiders gathering on the ice
© Grant Gilchrist

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has funded Dr. Grant Gilchrist, Dr. Mark Forbes (Carleton University - Canada Research Chair in Ecological Parasitology Wildlife Conservation) and a research team to study avian cholera in Arctic breeding waterfowl for the next three years. Ongoing bird deaths in the Arctic pose a risk to the viability of breeding populations and also have a major impact on northern communities relying on those birds for their livelihood.

Researchers will study common eiders in Canada’s Arctic. Eiders were extensively studied before the cholera outbreaks such that baseline data are available on pre-outbreak survival and productivity. One possibility under consideration is that wetlands during the Arctic summer act as suitable reservoirs for the disease and heighten local epidemics.

CBC News (North): Avian cholera may spread in Arctic: scientists

Contacts: Dr. Grant Gilchrist (613) 998-7364, profile of Grant Gilchrist or Dr. Catherine Soos (306) 975-5357


Health Effects of Toxics

Value of Environmental Specimen Banks: video

Long-term specimen archives can address unexpected environmental change and offer a powerful tool for environmental study.

Germany’s Federal Ministry for the Environment has produced a documentary video featuring specimen banks from around the world, including Environment Canada’s Dr. Birgit Braune (National Wildlife Specimen Bank) and Daryl McGoldrick (National Aquatic Biological Specimen Bank). The video includes interviews with international experts responsible for specimen banks and calls for global cooperation and integrated research.

Contacts: Dr. Birgit Braune (613) 998-6694, profile of Birgit Braune and Daryl McGoldrick (905) 336-4685, profile of Daryl McGoldrick


Selenium elevated in invertebrates and bird eggs downstream of uranium milling operations

Common loon with chicks | Photo: photos.com
Common loon with chicks

Results from a study of metal concentrations at uranium operations in northern Saskatchewan show that selenium levels in aquatic invertebrates and in eggs of nesting aquatic birds are substantially elevated in lakes and ponds near sources of uranium mine and mill effluent releases. These levels sometimes exceed estimated dietary and egg threshold concentrations for reproductive impairment in birds. However, clear evidence of reproductive impairment was not observed, partly because a generally low abundance of breeding aquatic birds in both the receiving environments and near-by reference areas precludes large-scale reproductive studies.

Of the invertebrates analyzed, larval dragonflies, larval caddisflies and leeches in exposure areas had the highest selenium concentrations (e.g., up to 43 ppm dry weight in dragonflies compared with reference areas at <2 ppm). Certain other potentially toxic metals (e.g., molybdenum and uranium) were also elevated in some invertebrates from exposure areas. Of the birds, selenium was highest in common loon eggs collected from areas downstream of effluent discharge (up to 23 ppm dry weight compared with reference areas at <3 ppm).

Additional studies are required to determine if aquatic birds breeding on lakes and ponds downstream of Canadian uranium mining and milling operations are experiencing significant exposure-related reproductive or other impairment.

Contact: Dr. Tony Scheuhammer (613) 998-6695, profile of Tony Scheuhammer


International regulations have reduced some contaminants in polar bears

Arctic icescape | Photo: photos.com
Arctic icescape

An international team recently collaborated to study flame retardants and legacy contaminants in polar bears for the years 2005 to 2008. Fat tissue was analyzed from 11 circumpolar subpopulations of polar bears, spanning Alaska east to Svalbard. Slow or stalling declines were detected for certain historic pollutants, such as PCBs. Complex mixtures of “new” chemicals continue to be of concern, to polar bear health and that of arctic marine ecosystems.

Scientists screened 37 polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), total-(α)-hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), two polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), pentabromotoluene, pentabromoethylbenzene, hexabromobenzene, 1,2-bis(2,4,6-tribromophenoxy(ethane) and decabromodiphenyl ethane. Of these, four PBDEs, total-(α-)HBCD and BB153 were consistently found.

Geometric mean ΣPBDE and BB153 levels were highest in East Greenland, Svalbard, and western and southern Hudson Bay. Total-(α)-HBCD levels were lower than ΣPBDE levels in all subpopulations except in Svalbard. This is consistent with greater HBCD use in Europe versus North American pentaBDE product use.

ΣPCB levels were high relative to flame retardants, as well as other legacy contaminants, and increased from west to east. ΣCHL levels were highest among legacy organochlorine pesticides and relatively spatially uniform. ΣDDT levels were relatively low and spatially variable.

However, elevated proportions of p,p’-DDT to ΣDDT in Alaska and Beaufort Sea relative to other subpopulations suggested fresh inputs from vector control use in Asia and/or Africa.

Results were published in the scientific journal, Environment International:

McKinney, M.A., R.J. Letcher, J. Aars, E.W. Born, M. Branigan, R. Dietz, T.J. Evans, G.W. Gabrielsen, E. Peacock and C. Sonne. 2010. Flame retardants and legacy contaminants in polar bears from Alaska, Canada, East Greenland and Svalbard,2005-2008. Environ. Internat. 37(2):365-74.

Contact: Dr. Robert Letcher (613) 998-6696, profile of Robert Letcher


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