In 1994, during an unusually cold January in Maryland, birdwatchers began noticing red finches with swollen, crusty eyes. They sat alone on the bird feeders, with ruffled feathers while healthy birds flitted around them. Within weeks, sick finches were reported far beyond the Washington area where they were first observed. By the end of the year, they had been spotted all over the eastern seaboard.
Scientists at the University of Georgia and North Carolina State found the finches were infected with a new strain of Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG), a bacterium that is a common cause of upper respiratory infections in chickens. It has never before been seen in songbirds.
Now scientists hope to use what they are learning about the finch eye disease to expand their understanding of a growing number of epidemic diseases in humans, animals, and plants. The project is funded by a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health and will examine how environmental changes such as habitat destruction, global warming, and pollution may cause new diseases to emerge and old ones to become more deadly.
?An unusually large number of new diseases have emerged in the last 20 years or so, not only in humans, but in animals and plants as well,? says ecologist Andre Dhondt of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca. Examples are AIDS, Ebola, drug-resistant tuberculosis and mad cow disease. ?This is probably the first study ever where it has been possible to study in great detail a newly emerging disease in a natural population,? he says.
?The goal is not to know about house finches and Mycoplasma,” says Dhondt. ?[But] one of the interesting things about Mycoplasma in house finches is that it has many similarities to AIDS. Understanding how we can fight this disease in finches might help us understand how to treat similar epidemics in humans.?
Birdwatchers and ornithologists were alarmed at how swiftly the finch disease was spreading. They feared migrating finches would infect songbirds in the tropics. At Cornell, Dhondt?s research team asked for help from Project FeederWatch, a nationwide group of 8,000 backyard birdwatchers. Together, they found the infection reduced the eastern house finch population by 60 percent ? 180 million birds ? within two-and-a-half years. So far, researchers don?t understand why it is wiping out house finches but not sparrows or cardinals.
Researchers are exploring whether stress makes the birds more susceptible. ?One of the things we?re speculating about is why we find a peak of disease in February,? Dhondt says. One theory is that as they prepare for springtime mating, the birds are physically more stressed.
?What?s so interesting about this system of Mycoplasma in house finches is the degree to which we will be able to understand the strange dynamics of host and disease,? Dhondt says. ?When you study one particular thing in phenomenal detail, you always hope what you learn will apply to other systems and help you build theory. That?s really why we do research: to understand the world around us.?
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