Dying Ducks, and an Unknown Disease

If you have ever been to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, you have probably noticed the beautiful scenery that surrounds you. Filled with wildlife, beautiful landscapes, and pristine beaches, Cape Cod National seashore is home to many unique species of animals which call the cape home during different parts of the year. However, like many other wildlife species, there are diseases that infect these populations, one of which is currently harming the Common Eider, a species of duck that spends the winter in Cape Cod.

The disease currently harming the Eider population is a new variation of Quaranjavirus called Wellfleet Bay virus (WFBV), which is similar to influenza. Although not much is known about the WFBV, a study done by Ballard et al. in 2017 has helped to paint a better picture of the presence of antibodies in local bird species that have been exposed to WFBV in the Cape Cod and Nova Scotia area. Unlike the other members of the Orthomyxoviridae  family, WFBV is a new form of the disease that is still not widely understood. After study, it has previously been postulated by Andrew Allison, of the Baker Institute of Animal Health, that the viral characteristics, specifically the surface protein, are evident of a tick borne disease.

During their study on the disease characteristics of WFBV, Ballard et al. has determined that some local Cape Cod waterfowl have antibodies to WFBV present in their bodies, suggesting that WFBV has been transmitted during the winter season. However, even though antibodies have been detected in other waterfowl species, the common eider is the only bird that has been found to have the virus infecting it; the other local species are not thought to be disease reservoirs either.

Despite the presence of antibodies in Herring Gulls, Ring-billed gulls, Black Scoters, and White-winged Scoters, there have been some cases of the spread of WFBV from eider carcasses to these gull species. In multiple instances of dead WFBV contaminated eiders, there have been cases along the New Jersey coast, where Herring Gulls are known to consume the carcasses of dead, infected eiders, which may lead to disease transmission, but has not been located in any Herring Gull population.

In their conclusion, Ballard et al. stated that they were not expecting to discover that there were as many possible hosts for WFBV, as evident from collection of antibodies from multiple waterfowl species. The fate of the Common Eiders of the North Eastern coast is still up in the air, and may prove to be dark. However, more studies on this new emerging disease are being conducted in regards to the neighboring populations of the Eiders in Cape Cod, in order to better understand WFBV, and determine how it can be handled.


(Ballard et al.) http://www.jwildlifedis.org/doi/pdf/10.7589/2016-10-237?code=wdas-site

(Allison) http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2014/12/virus-causing-mass-cape-cod-duck-die-offs-identified

(Background on WFBV) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quaranjavirus


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