Bioaccumulation is the sequence of processes in an ecosystem by which certain chemicals can accumulate in organisms up the food chain, generally through a series of prey-predator relationships. If the chemical is highly toxic, the results can be devastating in an aquatic ecosystem. Since 1999, 54 bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) have died on Lake Thurmond (71,000 acres), the largest such mortality in U.S. history. Dr. Susan Wilde, an assistant professor at University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry, is part of the team that believes they have solved this mystery. She and her associates have concluded that the cause is bioaccumulation of a new neurotoxin produced by a newly described cyanobacterial species in the order Stigonematales.
Produced by filamentous blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) growing on submerged plants, especially hydrilla verticillata, this neurotoxin is bioaccumulated from the vegetarian American coots (Fulica americana) to their magnificent predators, bald eagles. Consumption of vegetation containing the neurotoxin by coots and the consumption of sickened coots by eagles resulted in the discovery of an emerging neurological disease, called Avian Vacuolar Myelinopathy (AVM). This often fatal disease results from lesions in the brain stem and spinal cord. Coots affected with AVM lose vision and muscle coordination, have difficulty flying and swimming, and become easy prey for the opportunistic bald eagles, who themsleves become victims. The disease agent, a neurotoxin produced by an epiphytic bluegreen alga in the order Stigonematales (Wilde et al., 2005), has recently been extracted from the plant samples from problem lakes (Wiley et al., 2009). Test animals exposed to this extract contracted AVM. The evidence seems clear.
Unfortunately, this emerging neurotoxin is not the only cyanotoxin in aquatic ecosystems with the potential for bioaccumulation. Microcystin is one that affects the liver long term. Another is Cylindrospermopsin which is rapidly becoming is one of the most important toxins produced by freshwater blue-green algae. The rapid distribution of cyanotoxin producers into temperate zones has heightening concerns that these toxins will create serious environmental and human health risks on a global scale. Importantly, a recent study in Mexico documented the bioaccumulation of cyanotoxins by native apple snails. In eutrophic Lake Catemaco (18,000 acres), Cylindrospermopsin was biomagnified 157 times by endemic Tegogolo snails (Pomacea patula catemacensis) (Berry, J.P., and Owen Lind, 2010, in press). That is not comforting.
These findings raise serious questions regarding an additional environmental impact of the range expansion of exotic apple snails. It appears that the key ingredients for bioaccumulation of cyanotoxins are nutrient-rich aquatic systems, especially reservoirs, with abundant submersed vegetation covered with filamentous, blue-green algae. Because of nutrient pollution and the introduction of exotic plants, such systems are all too common in the expanding range of Pomacea canaliculata and P. insularum in the United States. Will exotic apple snails play the same role as the American coot and lethally transfer cyanotoxins to their avian predators, such as the Limpkin (Aramus guarauna) and Snail Kites (Rostrhamus sociabilis)? I asked Dr. Wilde:
“Hydrilla mats provide an enormous substrate for epiphytic cyanobacteria, and many of these species are capable of producing toxins. Because they are voracious consumers of hydrilla, the invasive apple snails may facilitate the transfer of those toxins through the food chain. We have ongoing research funded by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to determine the levels of toxins in tissues of exotic apple snails and the potential of transferring of those toxins to birds of prey. Our initial feeding trials indicate that concern may be warranted, but it is too early to make any definitive conclusions.” She will keep us posted on her new, excellent website (below). Thank you, Dr. Wilde! Posted by Jess Van Dyke
For more information on AVM contact:
Dr. Susan B. Wilde
Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources,
University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia 30602
Avian Vacuolar Myelinopathy (AVM) Website: