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Volunteers and biologists walking the beaches of northwestern Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the past few days have counted nearly 300 dead or dying loons and other fish-eating birds -- all victims of botulism that has scientists concerned about the changing ecology of the Great Lakes.
"This last couple days has been off the charts," said Dan Ray, a biologist in charge of a project monitoring the botulism among fish-eating birds at the park. "I'm sitting here looking at our graph and for the loons, this appears to be one of the worst seasons."
Strong southwest and northwest winds in recent weeks explain why the dead loons are coming ashore, possibly from many miles into Lake Michigan.
The death of loons -- with their haunting two-note cry and striking looks -- gets the public nervous, too, Ray said.
"It's almost strange from a biologist's standpoint," he said. "When loons show up (dead), people freak out."
One loon found dead off the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula in late September was known as the Patriarch -- at age 21, the oldest banded loon in Michigan.
Thomas Cooley, a biologist and pathologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, did the necropsy on Patriarch and determined that botulism killed him.
The problem begins with two tiny nonnative mussels -- zebras and quaggas -- that feed by filtering plankton in the water. Over time, water clarity increases, allowing sunlight to penetrate to greater depths. In turn, that has allowed mats of algae to grow in deeper water. Meanwhile, another recent addition to the Great Lakes ecosystem -- the bottom-dwelling, minnow-sized round goby -- has proliferated. As the algae mats decay, they become anaerobic -- depleted of oxygen, an environment in which the botulism bacteria thrives. In some places, the algae blankets can be several feet thick. Gobies live in and around the algae and pick up the toxin produced by the bacteria. In turn, susceptible fish-eating birds such as loons, mergansers and grebes, as well as gulls and cormorants, eat the gobies and become poisoned. Botulism attacks the nervous system, leaving birds unable to control their wings and eventually, their neck muscles to lift their heads. Death is slow and, at the least, unpleasant. One theory suggests that the onset of fall weather and the turnover of the water column as the lakes cool could make the botulism toxin more accessible to fish and birds.
Originally posted by chiefsmom
Zebra mussels, Asian carp, Our beautiful big lakes are in serious trouble.
The lasting effects from these outsiders are going to be devastating.
I know the loons on the small lake by our cabin are already having problems, because the Eagles have made such a strong comeback. They snatch the babies every year.