Avian vacuolar myelinopathy linked to exotic aquatic plants and a novel cyanobacterial species

Susan B. Wilde, Thomas M. Murphy, Charlotte P. Hope, Sarah K. Habrun, Jason Kempton, Anna Birrenkott, Faith Wiley, William W. Bowerman, Alan J. Lewitus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Invasions of exotic species have created environmental havoc through competition and displacement of native plants and animals. The introduction of hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) into the United States in the 1960s has been detrimental to navigation, power generation, water intake, and water quality (McCann et al., 1996). Our field surveys and feeding studies have now implicated exotic hydrilla and associated epiphytic cyanobacterial species as a link to avian vacuolar myelinopathy (AVM), an emerging avian disease affecting herbivorous waterbirds and their avian predators. AVM, first reported in 1994, has caused the death of at least 100 bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and thousands of American coots (Fulica americana) at 11 sites from Texas to North Carolina (Thomas et al., 1998; Rocke et al., 2002). Our working hypothesis is that the agent of this disease is an uncharacterized neurotoxin produced by a novel cyanobacterial epiphyte of the order Stigonematales. This undescribed species covers up to 95% of the surface area of leaves in reservoirs where bird deaths have occurred from the disease. In addition, this species is rare or not found on hydrilla collected at sites where AVM disease has not been diagnosed. Laboratory feeding trials and a sentinel bird study using naturally occurring blooms of cyanobacteria on hydrilla leaves and farm-raised mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) induced the disease experimentally. Since 1994 AVM has been diagnosed in additional sites from Texas to North Carolina. Specific site characteristics that produce the disjunct distribution of AVM are unknown, but it is probable that the incidence of this disease will increase with the introduction of hydrilla and associated cyanobacterial species into additional ponds, lakes, and reservoirs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)348-353
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental Toxicology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Avian vacuolar myelinopathy
  • Cyanobacteria
  • Fulica americana
  • Haliaeetus leucocephalus
  • Hydrilla verticillata
  • Invasive aquatic plants
  • Neurotoxins
  • Stigonematales

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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