Public Release: 

Tracking elephants, ecstasy, and emerging diseases

December issue of ESA's Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

Ecological Society of America

When wild birds are a big part of your diet, opening a freshly shot bird to find worms squirming around under the skin is a disconcerting sight. That was exactly what Victoria Kotongan saw in October, 2012, when she set to cleaning two of four spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) she had taken near her home in Unalakleet, on the northwest coast of Alaska. The next day, she shot four grouse and all four harbored the long, white worms. In two birds, the worms appeared to be emerging from the meat.

Kotongan, worried about the health of the grouse and the potential risk to her community, reported the parasites to the Local Environmental Observer Network, which arranged to have the frozen bird carcasses sent to a lab for testing. Lab results identified the worms as the nematode Splendidofilaria pectoralis, a thinly described parasite previously observed in blue grouse (Dendragapus obscurus pallidus) in interior British Columbia, Canada. The nematode had not been seen before so far north and west. Though S. pectoralis is unlikely to be dangerous to people, other emerging diseases in northern regions are not so innocuous.

Animals are changing their seasonal movements and feeding patterns to cope with the changing climate, bringing into close contact species that rarely met in the past. Nowhere is this more apparent than the polar latitudes, where warming has been fastest and most dramatic. Red foxes are spreading north into arctic fox territory. Hunger is driving polar bears ashore as sea ice shrinks. Many arctic birds undertake long migratory journeys and have the mobility to fly far beyond their historical ranges, or extend their stay in attractive feeding or nesting sites.

With close contact comes a risk of infection with the exotic parasites and microorganisms carried by new neighbors, and so disease is finding new territory as well. Clement conditions extend the lifecycles of disease carrying insects, and disease-causing organisms. Migratory birds can take infectious agents for rides over great distances. In November 2013, Alaska Native residents of St. Lawrence Island, in the Bering Sea, alerted wildlife managers to the deaths of hundreds of crested auklets, thick-billed murres, northern fulmars and other seabirds, caused by an outbreak of highly contagious avian cholera (Pasteurella multocida).

"It's the first time avian cholera has shown up in Alaska," said Caroline Van Hemert, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska. "St. Lawrence Island is usually iced in by November, but last year we had a warm fall and winter in Alaska. We don't know for sure that open water, climate, and high-densities of birds contributed to the outbreak, but it coincided with unusual environmental conditions."

Circumstantial evidence collected by researchers and local observers is pointing toward a surge of infectious disease in the northern latitudes, but scanty baseline data makes interpretation of current trends uncertain. Van Hemert and colleagues review the state of our knowledge of emerging disease in northern birds and effects on wildlife and human health, discussing strategies for cooperative programs to fill in information gaps in the December issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

  • Wildlife health in a rapidly changing North: focus on avian disease. (2014) Caroline Van Hemert, John M Pearce, and Colleen M Handel. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12(10): 548-556, doi:10.1890/130291
  • Author contact: Caroline Van Hemert, US Geological Survey Alaska Science Center, Anchorage, AK;

Also in this issue of ESA Frontiers:

Elephants and Ecstasy: Tracking Animal State of Being

How does an elephant feel? What is the internal state of a cockroach? How does a ravers past drug use show in the hands? Accelerometers attached to animals can track not only location and motion but the animal's internal state of health, hormones, and even emotions, moods, and motivations. The authors track specific components of state in three different animal models: chemical state in humans (Homo sapiens), affective state in African elephants (Loxodonta africana), and disease state in death's head cockroaches (Blaberus craniifer).

  • Wild State Secrets: Ultra-sensitive Measurement of Micro-movement can Reveal Internal Processes in Animals

    (2014). Rory P Wilson, Ed Grundy, Richard Massy, Joseph Soltis, Brenda Tysse, Mark Holton, Yuzhi Cai, Andy Parrott, Luke A Downey, Lama Qasem, and Tariq Butt. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 582-587.

Mapping Underwater Ecology with Sound

From the warm coral reefs to the cold waters under polar ice, tens of thousands of tracking devices send information about the underwater world and the animals that carry them. The authors lay out complex questions that new technology may allow us to answer.

  • Making Connections in Aquatic Ecosystems with Acoustic Telemetry Monitoring

    (2014). Michael R Donaldson, Scott G Hinch, Cory D Suski, Aaron T Fisk, Michelle R Heupel, and Steven J Cooke. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 565-573.

Slippery Slopes and Valuing All Ecosystems, Historical and New

All ecosystems are affected by human activity. Patches of historical "wild" ecosystems remain, embedded in a matrix of cities and suburbs, agricultural lands and parks, and every gradient in between. The authors discuss a management framework that classifies a patche of land by how much it has changed, how its changes influence neighboring landscapes, and how likely a reversion to the historical state is. New ecosystems that coalesce under the influence of climate change, species invasions, and human industry also have ecological and cultural value, they say, which needs to be considered in restoration efforts.

  • Managing the whole landscape: historical, hybrid, and novel ecosystems

    (2014). Richard J Hobbs, Eric Higgs, Carol M Hall, Peter Bridgewater, F Stuart Chapin III, Erle C Ellis, John J Ewel, Lauren M Hallett, James Harris, Kristen B Hulvey, Stephen T Jackson, Patricia L Kennedy, Christoph Kueffer, Lori Lach, Trevor C Lantz, Ariel E Lugo, Joseph Mascaro, Stephen D Murphy, Cara R Nelson, Michael P Perring, David M Richardson, Timothy R Seastedt, Rachel J Standish, Brian M Starzomski, Katherine N Suding, Pedro M Tognetti, Laith Yakob, and Laurie Yung. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 557-564.

  • Urban ecology: advancing science and society

    (2014). Colby J Tanner, Frederick R Adler, Nancy B Grimm, Peter M Groffman, Simon A Levin, Jason Munshi-South, Diane E Pataki, Mitchell Pavao-Zuckerman, and William G Wilson. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 574-581.


Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, issued 10 times per year, consists of peer-reviewed, synthetic review articles on all aspects of ecology, the environment, and related disciplines, as well as short, high-impact research communications of broad interdisciplinary appeal.

ESA is the world's largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge, committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes six journals and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. The Society's Annual Meetingattracts over 3,000 attendees and features the most recent advances in ecological science.

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