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Scientists Seek Origin of Deadly Disease Plaguing Great Lakes Waterfowl

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Nov 27, 2013 01:27 PM EST
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The Nature Conservancy purchased an island located in Lake Michigan it says represents a key layover for the birds that migrate through the Great Lakes each year. (Photo : Reuters)

Researchers have developed a new way to track a deadly disease wreaking havoc on the water bird population of the Great Lakes region.

Type E botulism is a neuromuscular disease caused when birds ingest infected fish. With 10,000 more waterfowl dying in 2007 from the sickness compared to when it was first reported 50 years ago, ocean engineers from the Florida Atlantic University Institute for Ocean Systems Engineering have teamed up with the US Geological Survey in order to track waterfowl carcasses and, in doing so, identify the source of the outbreaks.

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Together, the team carried out towing tank experiments on submerging bird carcasses in order to determine the relevant drag coefficients. They then combined this with wind and current data to develop likely source tracking simulations in determine how the bird bodies may have traveled following the die-off.

"Using the submerged frontal area of an ellipse, together with the frontal area of any submerged portions of the bird's head and neck gives good similarity across the range of speeds and submergence levels tested," FAU researcher Karl von Ellenrieder said in a statement.

These experimental measurements will ultiamtely be compared to waterbird distribution seen through aerial surveys in order to identify potential problem areas. The measurements will also be used to support the creation of tracking software.

Presented at this year's annual meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics, held Nov. 24-26, the study could also be used to study the drift of waterbird carcasses following ocean oil spills.

According to von Ellenrieder, the study is one of the first of its kind.

"This is the first effort we are aware of to obtain estimates of force parameters operating on drifting waterbirds for incorporation into a current and waved-based tracking model."

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