Great Lakes loons dying in record numbers from botulism outbreak spurred by ecological disturbance
(Editor's note: This story was originally published on Aug. 5, 2013, but received limited visibility on AnnArbor.com and MLive.com.)
The Common Loon, arguable one of the most beautiful birds that grace our Great Lakes, is dying at an alarming rate. The fact that they’re dying is troubling, but the cause is downright scary. Most readers are familiar with the loon, but here’s a brief description for those who are unfamiliar with these gorgeous diving birds.
The loon is about the size of a small goose and has black and white plumage with piercing red eyes and can be found throughout the Great Lakes and other northern waters. Not only is their beauty unmatched, their eerie calls echo across waters they inhabit that make them one of the most unforgettable birds you’ll ever see or hear.
Recently, the Great Lakes Science Center - a Division of the United States Geological Survey - has discovered that the Common Loon can dive down to 150 deep catching fish with their beaks.
The loons are diving down to 150 feet to eat fish to survive. Loons only reside in the Great Lakes for a brief period in the late summer and fall on their way from their northern breeding lakes to their wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, but they feed heavily on highly concentrated schools of fish that occur in the deeper waters of the Great Lakes.
photos courtesy of USGS
Believe it or not, the goby itself is not the problem as to why the diving birds are dying. The problem is Botulism E. “Botulism E.,” you say? How and why do the Great Lakes have such a terrifying disease?
Dr. Kurt Newman with the GLSC stated the following: “Botulism E. toxin is the most toxic substance known to man. One gram of purified toxin could kill hundreds of thousands of people.”
We have to go back in time to set the stage for this situation that affects us all. It started with the invasive Zebra Mussel and then the introduction of another invasive mussel called the Quagga Mussel.
Both mussel species have the ability to filter Great Lakes water at an alarmingly fast rate, in turn, clearing up the water. Most people would think clear water in the Great Lakes is a good thing. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the case.
The mussels are taking away food for tiny fish to eat; they’re upsetting the food chain making its way up to the predators including the sturgeon, salmon and trout species. The salmon and trout numbers are dwindling but that’s not the point of this story; at least for now anyway.
The greater problem is the water is getting clearer, allowing the sun to penetrate to the bottom of the Great Lakes; in particular Lake Michigan.
The sunlight reaching down more than 50 feet is allowing algae mats to grow along the bottom of the lakes, especially Lake Michigan where its most hit. Algae mats are growing very fast and they’re many feet thick. The top layer of algae is getting sunlight, but the lower layers begin to decay, and large amounts of algae are sloughed off the algal beds, sometimes by storms. This results in tons of algae being washed off and decomposing on the lake bottom, and that’s where the Botulism E. bacteria grows and produces toxin.
The Goby swims through these piles of decomposing algae and eat worms and bugs that have eaten up the toxin from the rotting algae, and diving birds like the Common loon and Cormorants dive down to eat the Goby and other deep swimming bait fish.
The Gobies carrying the Botulism E. toxin are now infecting the birds that eat them. So, now we know how the birds are getting the Botulism E., but how do they ultimately die?
Simply put, Botulism E. carries a neurotoxin that affects the central nervous system of the infected birds. This neurotoxin causes paralysis and the birds often drown because they can’t perform the simple task of keeping their head above water.
Scientists with the GLSC are working with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center and the National Park Service, and they have estimated that we’ve lost more than 100,000 birds to date and the numbers are expected to get worse until scientists find a way to intervene.
It was estimated that around 3000 loons died from botulism in Lake Michigan in 2012. This could have a significant effect on loon populations if it occurs often, as there are only 20,000 adult loons in the Great Lake states.
These scientists have also found that botulism outbreaks are more likely to occur when lake levels are low and water temperatures are high. These are exactly the conditions predicted under climate change, so we can probably expect the problem to get worse.
This is a relatively new problem because it affects us all. We’re dealing with a highly toxic substance that is increasing its territory on our Great Lakes. Furthermore, it’s killing our diving birds, the majestic Lake Sturgeon and the deep diving duck populations.
If you thought the Great Lakes were doing okay, then it’s time to reconsider. I’ll stay on this story and give updates in a timely manner.
Rick Taylor warmly welcomes your comments and story ideas. Feel free to email him at email@example.com.
Fri, Aug 16, 2013 : 11:38 p.m.
Thank you so much for this well-written and science driven article about this disaster. You've now gotten my attention, and I will be passing your article around. You are doing good work!
Fri, Aug 16, 2013 : 11:16 p.m.
This is very disturbing news. I do Open Water Swim races in northern Lake Michigan. The water is not clear up North. Is the problem worse in certain parts of the Lake? I hope Naturalists and other scientists get on this quickly! I LOVE the loons!
Thu, Aug 15, 2013 : 12:29 a.m.
Do crows dive to 150 feet underwater to get the wrinkles out of their feet?
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 3:20 p.m.
We heard them up at the state park by Traverse City over the weekend. Did not know that they were dying. DD said she heard them a lot last year. Not as much this year. Never saw one but heard them. Reminded me of On Golden Pond. I really hope something can be done.
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 1:28 p.m.
How did the climate scientists get the ice caps to recede so much? Where are they hiding the ice for this giant "hoax" of global warming?
Fri, Aug 16, 2013 : 11:17 p.m.
I assume you are being sarcastic here.
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 12:31 p.m.
There have been a few comments from those who don't like the notion that Climate Change was used in the story. First and foremost, Dr. Kurt Newman made that analysis and not me. Some readers who've commented negatively about Climate Change being used as the reason for this problem are incorrect. Scientists are not saying climate change is the problem. Rather, they are saying Climate Change is just one of many contributing factors. The big problem is the botulism itself in conjunction with the mussels, the Goby, algea mats and yes...climate change as well. Let's remember 2 other things...first, we've had botulism outbreaks before. Secondly, the difference now is they are much more severe than ever before evidenced by a 15% loss of the loon population in one year. Don't forget other bird species are affected not to mention the Lake Sturgeon.
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 1:07 a.m.
15% of the population is dead in one year, sturgeon are affected, other diving birds are dying at high rates. This is a big deal even if climate change isn't in the equation. A slow kill off is one thing, this is much different. If you disagree then that's your right, thank you for the conversation none the less.
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 12:44 a.m.
I am glad they contacted you to spread the news. But like I said, this is not new and it is not worth getting everybody worked up over. In the late 70's there was a huge kill off. It happens, it's the great equalizer. Table 38.3 Major waterfowl botulism outbreaks in the United States and Canada. Location Year Estimated loss Utah and California 1910 "Millions" Lake Malheur, Oregon 1925 100,000 Great Salt Lake, Utah 1929 100,000– 300,000 Tulare Basin, California 1941 250,000 Western United States 1952 4–5 million Montana 1978 50,000 Montana 1979 100,000 Great Salt Lake, Utah 1980 110,000 Canada (Alberta) 1995 100,000 Canada (Manitoba) 1996 117,000 Canada (Saskatchewan) 1997 1 million Great Salt Lake, Utah 1997 514,000
Thu, Aug 15, 2013 : 1:59 a.m.
Wait a minute are you suggesting that these number are losses for Common Loons. From what I have heard Common Loons are not an abundant species. Loss of 15% of a population is a big deal and something that should concern us if it did not occur through strictly natural causes.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 6:55 p.m.
This is old news and was reported in this paper as well as Detroit papers several years ago. Waterfowl have always had a high mortallity rate due to botulism. It just affects the diver ducks more so than puddle ducks.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 8:44 p.m.
There have been botulism outbreaks in the past, no doubt. However, the frequency and intensity are greater than ever and it has many scientists and wildlife officials more concerned than ever. For instance, the USGS director contacted me asking for an interview due to their concerns over the issue.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 5:29 p.m.
These are exactly the conditions predicted under climate change, so we can probably expect the problem to get worse. Except it looks like it is getting better. Keep trying. http://www.lre.usace.army.mil/Missions/GreatLakesInformation/GreatLakesWaterLevels/WaterLevelForecast/WeeklyGreatLakesWaterLevels.aspx
Thu, Aug 15, 2013 : 12:26 a.m.
We do that just to hear the climate change alarmists/cultists scream, "Weather is not climate!"
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 3:11 p.m.
Eye: It is also the case that when there is one mild summer somewhere on the planet that climate change deniers jump up and down and say 'aha that proves there is nothing to climate change and it is just hoax.'
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 12:48 p.m.
@Craig; My point exactly.
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 12:37 p.m.
Craig, the author of the article invoked it.
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 12:35 p.m.
EyeHeartA2, also the drift of the Earth's magnetic poles.
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 12:02 p.m.
I'm not sure what climate change has to do with this issue. This is an invasive species issue.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 10:47 p.m.
The issue is that if water levels are down, it's due to climate change if water levels are up, it's due to climate change if it is hot out, it is due to climate change if it is cold out, it is due to climate change if the checkout boy gives me paper instead of plastic, it's due to climate change if the glaciers recede from the great lakes, it's due to climate change (oh, wait, that one happened, even without evil man's CO2)
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 6:25 p.m.
Yes I did, thank you for providing it. I'm glad to see the levels are up from before, lets hope it stays that way. The "keep trying" part is not right though. The information gathered came directly from senior scientists and I didn't ad-lib anything on this story other than I said loons were beautiful birds. That was the only subjective thing I said, everything else came directly from scientists. Dr. Kurt is an avid outdoorsman who's far from the far left and thats a fact. I just don't understand how the mere idea of saying climate change is real creates such a strong reaction from people such as yourself. I mean, the story is down the middle.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 6:15 p.m.
Did you look at the link? The lake level is higher.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 5:55 p.m.
I'm not sure what your comment is trying to say? 3000 of a 20,000 loon population died to botulism E alone last year. That's 15% of the loon population lost in 1 year. I honestly don't know how it's getting better.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 5:21 p.m.
We visited North and South Manitou Islands a few weeks ago had the opportunity observe firsthand how all this algae is washing up on shore at an alarming rate. Especially, during and after stormy weather. Brilliant article.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 4:55 p.m.
Loons actually breed in freshwater lakes in the northern L.P. and U.P. as well as upper Canada. As the article says though, after they finish breeding on these lakes, they start migrating south via the Great Lakes. During winter, you can see them off the coast of Florida, and sometimes in freshwater bays there. They're beautiful birds that are irreplaceable parts of peoples' up-north experiences. Hearing their haunting calls at night from a nearby lake takes you back to a more distant time. I hope some solution can be found to address this problem and solve it.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 4:50 p.m.
Zebra & Quagga mussels both originated in the Caspian & Black Seas in the southern Ukraine/Russia region, and started appearing in the Great Lakes approximately 25-30 years ago. They'd been spreading throughout the world well before then, and tend to be a nasty problem wherever they show up. From Wikipedia: " It is believed they were inadvertently introduced into the lakes in the ballast water of ocean-going ships traversing the St. Lawrence Seaway. Another possible often neglected mode of introduction is on anchors and chains, although this has not been proven. Since adult zebra mussels can survive out of water for several days or weeks if the temperature is low and humidity is high, chain lockers provide temporary refuge for clusters of adult mussels that could easily be released when transoceanic ships drop anchor in freshwater ports. As their shells are very sharp, they are known for cutting people's feet, resulting in the need to wear water shoes wherever they are prevalent. Since their colonization of the Great Lakes, they have covered the undersides of docks, boats, and anchors. They have also spread into streams and rivers nationwide. In some areas they completely cover the substrate, sometimes covering other freshwater mussels. They can grow so densely that they block pipelines, clogging water intakes of municipal water supplies and hydroelectric companies."
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 4:23 p.m.
I wish this article had addressed ways that we could help solve this problem. Here are two ideas: 1) We could do lots more to reduce the inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus into rivers and the lakes, and some of the steps would actually save us money and/or improve public health. These two elements act as fertilizers for algae in the lakes, and it's excessive algae growth that is driving the excess Botulinum bacteria populations in the system. Nitrogen comes mainly from fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment. By using less fertilizer and spreading it in smarter ways, we'd get more of it on plants not waste it in the water. Failed septic systems are another significant source of nitrogen. Since they're public health threat, there's an added bonus to dealing with that. Phosphorus also comes from fertilizer, but is useless in lower Michigan, because our soils have plenty of it. That's why the city and now state have regulated use of fertilizer with phosphorus. Phosphorus also comes into the water when soil gets eroded off the land. Since erosion also clogs drainage systems, we could save money and reduce environmental impact by better controlling erosion. For more information with a local perspective, check out the work of the Huron River Watershed Council: http://www.hrwc.org Aside from these steps, there's some other conservation we could do that would help -- don't kill snakes or turtles in the lakes, help them thrive instead. Watersnakes, snapping turtles and softshell turtles in and around the Great Lakes love to eat round gobies. Because these reptiles are cold-blooded, they don't need as much food per day as the birds do, so they aren't exposed to as much of the toxin. They can help reduce the goby population.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 4:22 p.m.
I read a story a couple years back where someone made the case that the cost of trying to contain invasive species exceeds the economic impact of ships coming in to the great Lakes from the Atlantic and if we could have a do over we would have been better off never letting ships come in to begin with.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 5:33 p.m.
Yup, between lampreys and zebra mussels, the Welland Canal (around Niagara Falls) has cost us a tremendous amount. We urgently need more mechanisms to keep alien species out of the Lakes.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 4:48 p.m.
That's a very interesting point. Most of the ocean-going ships you see on the Great Lakes are relatively small. It seems in hindsight, that it would have been better to not let them on the Lakes and just ship stuff via rail to the Atlantic Coast where these ships could pick it up there. It might cost a little more for the cargo, but at least the Great Lakes would be in a lot better condition today.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 4:16 p.m.
botulism is toxic to people too. how is anything from a big mesotrophic lake safe to eat?
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 4:34 p.m.
I believe the answer, for humans, is to cook it. The toxin doesn't like heat.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 3:46 p.m.
So where did the zebra and quagga mussels come from? Did someone put them there or is this just nature running its course?
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 5:04 a.m.
In high school I had a teacher who would never settle for anything but my best. She was a lot more cutting in her criticisms of my work than I am about your comment, Julius. I learned to look around and find the answers. I learned never to give less than my best. She inspired me to beome published and excell in my endeavors. Also to strive to strike my own path, not what other's expected of me. Forgive me if I seemed a little harsh in my expectations.
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 4:59 a.m.
In answer to your question.... Usual Suspect - "I believe ships entering the Great Lakes / St Lawrence system are now required to cycle their ballast water with salt water, which will kill off most fresh water organisms." "unkind, condescending "???? No, just amazed at you lack of critical reading skills. Asking questions that have already been answered in the article and the replies to your own comment. Simply amazes me. Forgive me if I expected better. My bad.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 8:53 p.m.
Unfortunately, I don't know enough about the ballast intake/outtake to comment. One might think that sterilizing the water or using some kind of bleach might work but then you're contaminating the water another way. Sorry, I just don't have the answers.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 8:22 p.m.
Thanks for the kind replies. The unkind, condescending one(s), not so much. Is there a practical way to control the intake/flushing of ballast water? I would assume such an idea has already been implemented at this point.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 7:36 p.m.
gee, Julius, did you actually read the article or just skim it? It stated that zebra mussels, quagga mussels and Gobies all likely came from ballast water used by empty ships to keep them from capsizing. I suggest you re-read the article.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 4:06 p.m.
Here is a link to MDNR's Invasive species web site. http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10370_59996---,00.html
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 4:01 p.m.
These two mussels species were imported by accident in ballast water -- in the hulls of cargo ships coming from Europe. These ships pump water in and out of their hulls to help control their buoyancy. The mussels have a free-swimming larval stage. They got sucked in while the ship was in a European harbor, and them pumped out when the ship was in the Great Lakes. There is no reason to think the species could have naturally crossed the Atlantic, the mussels only live in fresh water.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 4:01 p.m.
They are invasive species carried here on/in cargo holds and ship hulls as they travel through the Great Lakes Shipping channels. Sport fishermen and recreational boaters who go from lake to lake to other waterways can potentially also transfer these invasives/non-native species if they do not clean their bait wells, boat hulls and trailers in their travels.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 4 p.m.
Ships sometimes use water as ballast to improve stability. They will take on water in one location, then visit a port in another part of the world and dump that water out when they take on cargo. This can introduce into the new location any organisms that were in the ballast water. If the original source was another body of fresh water, those organisms can take hold in the Great Lakes. I believe ships entering the Great Lakes / St Lawrence system are now required to cycle their ballast water with salt water, which will kill off most fresh water organisms.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 3:14 p.m.
This past week, I saw a bumper sticker reading, "Hug a Loon" with a picture of the bird. Since people usually don't hug wild animals, I wondered what it meant. So now I realize that it might have to do with this problem. Thank you.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 3 p.m.
Wow - this is so interesting and upsetting. I have property on Lake Michigan and the algae levels are appalling. Please do keep posting about this. I would love to know how we can turn this around.
Superior Twp voter
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 2:56 p.m.
I KNEW it! As soon as I read your headline......... I knew we were headed to the conclusion of "These are exactly the conditions predicted under climate change, so we can probably expect the problem to get worse. " Yea, it wouldn't be the gobies, the quaggas, the zebras....invasive species causing "ecological disturbance." Nope, not at all. It's global warming.
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 2:59 p.m.
How about human overpopulation with its attendant overconsumption of natural resources? If anything is back of climate change and loss of biodiversity on a widespread scale, that is what it is. Yet liberal democratic party policies encourage and want to encourage much larger human populations in America in the future through basically open borders policies for illegal and legal immigration. It is sham when all these liberals bloviate about climate change and their current for the environment.
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 12:11 p.m.
d2na2 - Well said
Wed, Aug 14, 2013 : 11:29 a.m.
It has less to with Sup Twp denial of science and more to do with what appears to pathological need of the right to hold onto a past that never existed in the first place. I don't know if there is anything more disturbing than this shift by those on the right to stop thinking, to stop reasoning and to stop debating the factual merits of an argument, rather than one's pre-determined ideological position that all facts that disturb one's limited view of the world are wrong and conspiracy based. Can we ever dig ourselves out of the mess we've put ourselves in with thinking like this?
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 5:51 p.m.
I think some readers forget that I'm a Realtor and write this column for the enjoyment of passing on the wonders of the outdoors. I primarily write about bowhunting, rifle hunting, fly fishing, etc... I say this to you Mr. Superior Twp Voter because I think you don't know this...but you might-who knows. I find the Detroit News story odd because I sent them my article less than 2 weeks ago for print and they didn't have a need for such a story. Now, they print an article shockingly similar to mine...just sayin' Now, the possible reason why the article didn't bring up climate change is because the question wasn't asked. Did you ever think of that? Again, I'm not pushing an agenda but you keep accusing me of it. I wish you wouldn't because it wouldn't be accurate. So, I think you should contact the USGS located in Ann Arbor and ask for Russell Strach who is the director of the Great Lakes Science Center. Please ask Russell if he thinks Climate Change plays a role. After you get his answer of "Yes" then you can attack and mock him instead of me. The phone number to the GLSC is (734)994-3331. Take care, Rick
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 5:37 p.m.
How sad that you republicans have to jump to conclusions not stated. Deny global warming all you want. Just keep it in the context of the articles.
Superior Twp voter
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 5:36 p.m.
Mr. Taylor, No mention of "climate change" in the Detroit News article of today. And "far left hippie working for the Clinton campaign" provided me a smile!
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 4:10 p.m.
Even the sentence you quote doesn't claim that that "global warming" is the cause. It clearly says "...we can probably expect the problem to get worse." The problem exists already, with causes clearly explained in the article. Climate change as predicted would add to the problem, not cause it. So you waited for the magic words "climate change", took them out of context and claimed that what you expected had happened... even when it didn't.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 3:50 p.m.
It's not the conclusion of the article. Even so, why speculate? Why shoehorn the idea into the article if it doesn't play into your conclusion somehow?
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 3:50 p.m.
Keep denying science and reality. It's the only thing your side does well.
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 3:14 p.m.
That wasn't the writer's conclusion, it was an additional consideration. It also included the word "probably" as a way to indicate uncertainty and open mindedness. Here, I'll use it in a sentence for you: Your inability to comprehend what you read and to think logically and independently (of what you've seen on Fox News?) is probably why you're not a scientist. Does that help?
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 3:08 p.m.
The contents of your response came from a scientist from the USGS, not me just so you know. Are you saying this senior scientist who's an avid outdoorsman is a far left hippie working for the Clinton campaign in 2016? Here's my point, I trust a scientist more than a politician.
Tue, Aug 6, 2013 : 4:34 p.m.
This is an important story. Loons are incredible creatures and warrant our best efforts at protecting their environments. I've watched a mama loon give diving lessons to a group of 20 chicks up on a lake in Canada, and I've seen loon families get together for fun at the end of the day - bringing their chicks out on their backs and performing barrel rolls just for the fun of it. The wilderness areas of the US and Canada wouldn't be the same without the plaintive cry of the loon. Let's do what we can to get the federal and state governments to focus on the invasive species problem in our Great Lakes.
Stephen Lange Ranzini
Tue, Aug 6, 2013 : 11 a.m.
What a well written article! This is an ecological disaster!
Tue, Aug 13, 2013 : 3:18 p.m.
And here I was thinking that aa.com had an extra week before reposting and couldn't find time to give it some editing attention. I do agree that it's important info, though.
Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 5:19 p.m.
"The Gobies carrying the Botulism E. toxin are now infecting the birds that eat them" Infecting is not the right word, and so I was a bit worried folks might be confused by this. Intoxication is better. I very much appreciate the article, thankyou.
Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 4:29 p.m.
"It was estimated that around 3000 loons died from botulism in Lake Michigan in 2012. This could have a significant effect on loon populations if it occurs often, as there are only 20,000 adult loons in the Great Lake states." That's not good...that's not good at all. To have 15% of your population die in a single year is scary. Also, if it's so very toxic to humans too, have there been any cases of people being at the beaches and being exposed to washed up rotted algae and getting botulism?
Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 5:37 p.m.
I think not, cause the risk is not of infection - you'll have to ingest enough toxin (see my comment below). Don't be eating too many washed-up gobi's (or loons) might be a precaution, but I have no idea how many is too many for humans.
Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 2:53 p.m.
This is such an important story to be told, the Great Lakes deserve this to be on the front page of the newspaper!!!