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Bird Flu Causes Changes in Gannet Eye Color

Northern Gannets at Bass Rock

With Disney’s latest iteration of the Little Mermaid, the gannet may become a bit more familiar to audiences around the world. This sea bird has long been associated with gluttony, but since replacing the seagull as Ariel’s avian sidekick, gannets may just undergo a bit of a reputation rehabilitation. For many birders, though, the gannet was already fascinating enough. With keen eyesight which allows them to dive underwater from impressive heights, gannet colonies are truly captivating to watch.

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Now, there may be one more reason for scientists to keep a close eye on gannet populations. I have reported extensively on the devastating effects of the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza, or more simply “bird flu,” over the last two years. This extremely transmissible illness has impacted wild and domestic bird populations around the world, devastating the poultry industry, setting back conservation efforts for some of the world’s most endangered bird species, and even spreading to mammals in some cases.

As of right now, there is a mad scramble taking place to try and posit some actionable remedies to stop the spread of this disease. This is why researchers are paying close attention to the world’s largest gannet colony on the Bass Rock in Scotland. It was within this colony that researchers noted a very bizarre bird flu side effect.

Northern Gannets within this colony were being tested for bird flu antibodies when a strange pattern emerged. The birds that had survived their bout with avian influenza no longer had the shocking bright blue eyes that are typical of Northern Gannets. Instead, their irises had turned black.

The cause for this bizarre effect is unknown. Researchers indicate that about seven out of eight birds which tested positive for bird flu antibodies were found to have black eyes as well. So far, these birds are showing signs of having recovered completely from the virus.

It is unknown whether the eye color changes have any impact on eye function. Vision research is a likely next step for the researchers investigating this phenomenon. While the cause may be unknown, the color change may be a really useful tool for scientists, provided that it is determined not to be harming the birds after all. A cosmetic change like this one may afford scientists the opportunity to study the spread of bird flu without engaging in invasive testing procedures that disrupt the natural behaviors of gannet colonies.

As bird populations weather the onslaught of avian influenza, developing methodologies for research and conservation that are minimally invasive is a vital necessity.

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