Investigation of the link between avian vacuolar myelinopathy and a novel species of cyanobacteria through laboratory feeding trials

Faith E. Wiley, Susan B. Wilde, Anna H. Birrenkott, Sarah K. Williams, Thomas M. Murphy, Charlotte P. Hope, William W. Bowerman, John R. Fischer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Avian vacuolar myelinopathy (AVM) is a neurologic disease affecting Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), American Coots (Fulica americana), and other birds in the southeastern United States. The cause of the disease has not yet been determined, although it is generally thought to be a natural toxin. Previous studies have linked AVM to aquatic vegetation, and the current working hypothesis is that a species of cyanobacteria growing epiphytically on that vegetation is producing a toxin that causes AVM. Surveys of epiphytic communities have identified a novel species of cyanobacteria in the order Stigonematales as the most likely suspect. The purpose of this study was to further examine the relationship between the suspect Stigonematales species and induction of AVM, by using animal feeding trials. Adult Mallards and domestic chickens were fed aquatic vegetation from two study sites containing the suspect cyanobacterial epiphyte, as well as a control site that did not contain the Stigonematales species. Two trials were conducted. The first trial used vegetation collected during mid-October 2003, and the second trial used vegetation collected during November and December 2003. Neither treatment nor control birds in the first trial developed AVM lesions. Ten of 12 treatment Mallards in the second trial were diagnosed with AVM, and control birds were not affected. This study provides further evidence that the novel Stigonematales species may be involved with AVM induction, or at the least it is a good predictor of AVM toxin presence in a system. The results also demonstrate the seasonal nature of AVM events.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)337-344
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Wildlife Diseases
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2007


  • Avian vacuolar myelinopathy
  • Bald Eagle
  • Chicken
  • Cyanobacteria
  • Hydrilla
  • Mallard
  • Neurologic disease
  • Toxin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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