Since the nineties, Avian Keratin Disorder has been an increasingly common disorder among Alaskan and PNW crows, chickadees (~17% of northwest crows1, ~6% of black-capped chickadees2) and a handful of other species, that causes gross deformities of the beak such as elongation, curvature or crossing. I’ve written previously about the details of this disease before, but at that time there was little progress in determining the underlying source of the outbreak. While AKD can be caused by a variety of things, at the scale it’s being observed now scientists questioned if there was a more consistent underlying factor. Since AKD can cause discomfort or even death (primarily through the inability to feed or preen) understanding what might be the source of this outbreak has clear management and conservation implications.
Among the initial suspects were environmental contaminants such as heavy metals, organic pesticides, and toxic environmental pollutants like PCBs, PCDDs, and PCDFs. Blood work done on afflicted Northwestern crows, however, showed no significant difference in the 30 blood elements tested compared to unaffected adults or juveniles3. Fortunately, new research may finally be shedding light on what’s going on.
Disease can be an easy thing to rule out if you know what you’re looking for, but new to science pathogens can evade traditional diagnostic techniques. To account for this, a team of USGS and university scientists conducted a sequencing study comparing pooled RNA of healthy and AKD positive chickadees, crows and nuthatches in attempt to identify a candidate pathogen2. Their work appears to have paid off, revealing evidence for a new picornavirus (a family of viruses previously known to science) they are calling poecivirus. Whereas 100% of AKD-affected birds (23 subjects) tested positive only 22% of the 9 control individuals did.
Given these small sample sizes, it’s too early to throw our hands up in complete relief of having identified the cause of the AKD outbreak, especially since there’s still much to be done in understanding the potential relationship of this new virus to the environment. Nevertheless, these findings offer some insight and hope that scientists are on the right track. With more dedicated work we may soon have a much better understanding of this novel pathogen, its link to AKD, and management options moving forward.
1. Van Hemert C, & Handel CM. 2010. Beak deformities in Northwestern crows: Evidence of a multispecies epizootic. The Auk 127: 746-751. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/auk.2010.10132
2. Zylberberg M, Van Hemert C, Dumbacher JP, Handel CM, Tihan T, and DeRisi JL. 2016. Novel picornhttps://wordpress.com/post/corvidresearch.wordpress.com/3363avirus associated with Avian Keratin Disorder in Alaskan birds. mBio 7 doi: 10.7589/2015-10-287
3. Van Hemert C, Handel C. 2016. Elements in whole blood of Northwestern crows (Corvus caurinus) in Alaska USA: No evidence for an association with beak deformities. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 52:713-718 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.7589/2015-10-287