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International investigation discovers Bald eagles’ killer

Invasive water plant becomes breeding ground for cyanobacteria that causes lethal brain disease


The alarm bells began ringing when dozens of eagles were found dead near an Arkansas lake.

Their deaths—and, later, the deaths of other waterfowl, amphibians and fish—were the result of a neurological disease that caused holes to form in the white matter of their brains. Field and laboratory research over nearly three decades have established the primary clues needed to solve this wildlife mystery: Eagle and waterfowl deaths occur in late fall and winter within reservoirs with excess invasive aquatic weeds, and birds can die within five days after arrival.   

But until recently, the toxin that caused the disease, vacuolar myelinopathy, was unknown. 

Now, after years spent identifying a new toxic blue-green algal (cyanobacteria) species and isolating the toxic compound, an interdisciplinary research group from the University of Georgia and international collaborators have confirmed the structure of this toxin. The results were published today in the journal Science.

Read more on UGA's news website.

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