• Epizootic Of Beak Deformities In Alaska: Investigation Of An Emerging Avian Disease

      Van Hemert, Caroline; O'Hara, Todd; O'Brien, Diane; Handel, Colleen; Blake, John; Sharbaugh, Susan (2012)
      The sudden appearance of morphological abnormalities in a wild population is often associated with underlying ecological disturbances, including those related to introduction of new pathogens or pollutants. An epizootic of beak deformities recently documented among Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and other resident bird species in Alaska has raised concern about underlying causes. This dissertation describes results from several recent studies of what we have termed "avian keratin disorder." The primary objectives of the research were to characterize the physiology and pathology of beak deformities and to address specific ecological questions related to this emerging avian disease. In a study of beak growth rates in captive chickadees, I determined that accelerated epidermal growth is the primary physical mechanism by which beak deformities develop and are maintained. Affected birds also exhibited high rates of mortality and skin lesions, suggesting that this disorder significantly compromises individual health. I used radiography, histopathology, and electron microscopy to describe the pathology of avian keratin disorder. As part of this effort, I established baseline information about normal passerine beak and claw structure and developed methods for processing hard-cornified tissues. The suite of lesions that I observed in affected chickadees does not correspond with any known avian diseases, suggesting the presentation of a novel disorder in wild birds. In addition, the detailed characterization of gross and microscopic changes has allowed me to eliminate a number of likely etiologies, including nutritional problems, microbial pathogens, and select toxicants. As a complement to diagnostic pathology, I conducted field studies to investigate possible causes and patterns of occurrence of beak deformities. I used stable isotope analysis to investigate the association between diet and beak deformities. I found that winter dietary patterns differed between chickadees with normal beaks and those with beak deformities, but that such differences are more likely a result than a cause of avian keratin disorder. My field research on Northwestern Crows in Alaska confirmed high prevalence of a nearly identical condition to that observed in chickadees. These findings indicate that avian keratin disorder affects multiple, ecologically-distinct species across a large geographic area. Together, the studies presented in this dissertation provide new insights and identify priority research areas for a rapidly emerging disease in wild birds.