July 23, 2010 / 8:40 PM / 9 years ago

Loons provide clues to avian disease -- and oil spill

Workers clean a loon covered in oil sheen at the Pensacola Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Facility in Pensacola, Florida, June 29, 2010. REUTERS/Lyle W. Ratliff

ST. PAUL, Minnesota (Reuters Life!) - Dozens of loons will be outfitted with transmitters and tracked to their winter grounds in the oil-choked Gulf of Mexico to study the spread of a deadly avian disease, scientists said on Friday.

Avian botulism has killed 80,000 birds of various species in the Great Lakes since 1999, which spreads among fish and birds, and scientists want to know the deep-diving loons’ habits.

“This information will help shed light on how avian botulism may work in the food web on the Great Lakes,” U.S. Geological Survey biologist Kevin Kenow said.

It will also reveal how the loons hold up in the Gulf Coast region contaminated by oil from BP Plc’s ruptured deepwater well.

Ten of the birds have transmitters implanted in their abdomens and 70 others have them attached to their legs. Besides the birds’ location, scientists will receive data on body temperature, light levels, and water pressure.

Loons have greater bone density than other birds, allowing them to dive as deep as 250 feet in search of prey.

Avian botulism outbreaks have caused periodic die-offs of birds since the 1960s but they have become more common in the last decade, especially in Lake Michigan and Lake Erie.

Reporting by William Wilcoxen; Editing by Andrew Stern and Jonathan Oatis

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