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Warning Signals From Seabirds

Warning Signals From SeabirdsThe SEANET program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University monitors seabird populations along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and Canada to identify threats to animals, the environment and humans.

No. Grafton, Mass. [10.19.06] A sick sea gull or a dying loon may provide valuable clues to health problems that could eventually impact the environment or the human population. With that in mind, the Tufts Center for Conservation Medicine and the Tufts Wildlife Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine established the Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET) to monitor seabird populations along the coastline of the eastern United States and Canada.

“We are studying the mortality of seabirds as a sentinel of human, animal and environmental health,” Dr. Mark Pokras, director of the Wildlife Clinic at Tufts, told the newspaper.

SEANET began in 2002 as an effort to collect information about birds that populate the coastline from Maryland to Canada and to document the threats they face. So far, more than 60 different species of birds have been studied, reported the Telegram & Gazette. Pokras told the newspaper that many of the species—which are mostly gulls, loons and sea ducks—are “ecologically significant,” but not “economically important.” The most common causes of death among seabirds, the newspaper reported, are “starvation, ingestion of fishing line and gear and gunshot wounds.”

Keeping tabs on coastal birds helps researchers prepare for emergency situations that could seriously impact a population.

“We need to know what’s going on under normal circumstances so that if there are threats—a climate change, an oil disaster, exposure to contaminants—we can work to mitigate those problems,” Pokras told the Telegram & Gazette. “We can plan so that there will be less impact.”

Volunteers, who comb the coastline of the northeastern United States and Canada documenting facts about live seabirds and gathering information from seabird carcasses, are vital to SEANET, which also includes researchers from a variety of disciplines. The network is supported by many federal, state and local agencies and nonprofit groups.

According to SEANET Director Julie Ellis, this type of inter-agency collaboration is key when it comes to preparing for major health crises like avian flu.

Ellis recently told The Boston Globe that even though most people in the scientific community believe that avian flu will hit Alaska before it arrives on the East coast, having a network in place to monitor seabirds is important.

SEANET began testing for bird flu earlier this year, the Globe reported.

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