Wildlife Medicine Research

Antibiotic Resistance

In addition to all of our activities related to patient care and clinical instruction of veterinary students, there are a number of different research projects underway at the Wildlife Clinic. For the past two years, we have been working with Kate Ziegerer, a current fourth year student, on a survey of antibiotic resistance patterns in our wildlife patients. Cloacal swabs have been taken on selected patients on admission to determine what enteric bacteria are present and what antibiotics those bacteria are sensitive to. A surprising number of animals show antibiotic resistance patterns even on admission, presumable before they have had direct exposure to antibiotics in a clinical setting. These animals are then followed during their stay at the Wildlife Clinic, some are given antibiotics depending on their diagnoses, and follow up cloacal swabs are taken at the time of disposition, e.g. death, euthanasia, or release. We have demonstrated a dramatic change in type and rise in numbers of antibiotic resistant bacteria even after a brief stay in our facility. This evidence, coupled with information from a variety of different sources, serves to caution us against the overuse or misuse of antibiotics, and allows us to make more informed judgments about the type and circumstances of antibiotics use in our clinical practice.

Anticoagulant Rodenticides

Anticoagulant rodenticides are used to control rodent populations in various settings, including urban, suburban, and agricultural areas. These rodenticides disrupt blood clotting pathways, resulting in excessive bleeding and death. While effective in controlling rodent overpopulation, these poisons can also cause mortality in non-target species of mammals and birds that ingest the bait (primary exposure) or ingest poisoned animals (secondary exposure). Dr. Maureen Murray, clinical veterinarian at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic, is investigating the extent of exposure of birds of prey in urban and suburban areas of Massachusetts to these compounds. Species included in this study are red-tailed hawks, barred owls (Strix varia), eastern screech owls (Otus asio), and great horned owls (Bubo virginianus).

Immunological Functions

A second project, just getting underway, is the examination of basic immunological functions in some of our avian patients. Our inters, Dr.Deborah Brady, working with Dr. Sylvain DeGuise of the University of Connecticut Department of Pathobiology and Dr. Linda Keller (TCSVM), will be trying to determine the status of the immune system in selected raptors. Her work complements a summer student project, performed by Kim Wilson V'05, who is developing a technique for measuring levels of fecal corticosterone in red-tailed hawks. The determination of levels of this "stress" hormone in fecal samples and their correlation with blood levels, may allow us an objective measurement of stress levels related to captivity, pain, disease, or trauma.

Lead Poisoning

Tufts Wildlife Clinic is conducting an ongoing study on the prevalence of lead poisoning in aquatic birds, particularly the Common Loon. In addition to loons, frequent victims to lead poisoning include waterfowl and other aquatic birds, predatory birds, humans, and domestic animals.

Loon Health and Mortality

We continue to work on the loon health and mortality project, an ongoing effort of the Wildlife clinic for the past thirteen years. We are part of the Northeast Loon Study Working Group (NELSWG), a coalition of various biologists, academic institutions, state and federal agency personnel, and other interested parties. Tufts Wildlife Clinic has performed necropsies on over 1500 common loons to date, yielding much valuable information on causes of mortality to this sentinel species of New England lakes. Our findings have led to legislative bans on the sale and / or use of lead fishing gear in Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts. Several Midwestern and Northwestern states are now considering such bans.

Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET)

Drs. Mark Pokras and Flo tseng have been working on expanding the seabird morbidity and mortality project. Now called the Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET), this project is supported by several small private funders. Rebecca Harris, who got her PhD in Biology at Tufts, Medford Campus, has joined the project as the Program Officer.

We are collaborating with seabird researchers, wildlife rehabilitators, and volunteers up and down the Atlantic coast, from Delaware Bay to the Gulf of Maine to form a cohesive network of researchers and citizen scientists. We are in the process of creating a database of seabird population and mortality information and an on-going web-based mortality reporting system in collaboration with the National biological Information Infrastructure (NBII, USGS) and the US EPA. The project includes regular (monthly or more frequent) volunteer-based beached bird surveys that will provide information about large-scale mortality events and baseline levels of mortality. Patterns of environmental contaminants found in the birds, including heavy metal and petroleum products, will be documented and pollutant source locations mapped. Additionally, a database of regional oil shipping and distribution patterns and previous oil spill locations will be incorporated into a Geographic Information System (GIS); seabird distribution, mortality and contaminant maps will be overlaid. The gathered information will be readily available to the public on a searchable web-based database, and will be used to develop succinct regional plans for marine bird and habitat protection, prevent and prepare for future oil spills and mortality, and serve as an educational vehicle and catalyst for involvement of citizen scientists.

Seabirds are especially sensitive to petroleum and other pollution, because the physical properties of oil degrade the insulating and waterproofing properties of feathers. Ingestion of oil (often when preening oiled feathers) or inhalation of oil can also poison birds. Because of the large amount of shipping traffic offshore, the SEANET partners are interested in exploring the great risk to seabirds from both large spill events and small-scale discharge of waste from boats or other sources. We are interested in determining baseline levels of mortality as well as the occurrence and distribution of other threats such as diseases, entanglements, biotoxins from harmful algal blooms, and mortality caused by fisheries operations. In collaboration with National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), we are collecting data on seabirds caught as bycatch.

One of the goals of SEANET is to examine the spatial pattern of bird carcass deposition and how it varies across time. Because regular monitoring of beached birds has not recently been done in this region, these surveys will provide baseline information about causes of bird mortality from oil spills to disease. Over 50 volunteers and high school students are walking beaches every month in southeastern Massachusetts, Plum Island, Cape Cod, and new Hampshire, and we are currently expanding to include other regions in collaboration with organizations such as Wildlife Trust in New York.

We also are collaborating with Bird Studies, Canada, organizers of volunteer-based beached bird surveys in Nova Scotia, to find funding to produce a field guide to Atlantic beached birds. This resource will be useful for volunteers and students who are untrained in bird identification, and a Pacific version has proved invaluable for recruitment of volunteers in west coast beached bird surveys.

Even in the absence of regular beached bird surveys, we are interested in reports from birders about dead birds washing up on shore in large numbers. Please contact Julie Ellis at 508-887-4933 for more information, and visit the SEANET website.