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Satellite-Tracked Birds from India Will Provide Clues on How Avian Influenza Spreads: International Team Conducts Research

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Bar-headed goose with satellite transmitter
Above: Bar-headed goose with satellite transmitter, awaiting release. Photograph by John Takekawa, USGS. [larger version]

The largest waterbird-congregation area in the Indian subcontinent is the site of a new international study of migratory birds and their role in the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 virus.

In December 2008, a team of international scientists captured, sampled, and marked 70 waterbirds with satellite tags at Chilika Lake, a brackish lagoon connected to the Bay of Bengal on India's east coast. In the coming months, these researchers will track the satellite-marked birds to determine whether relationships exist between the locations of these marked birds and HPAI H5NI outbreaks along their migratory pathways. India was one of eight countries reporting HPAI H5N1 outbreaks in early 2009. Although previous samples collected from wild birds in Chilika Lake and other parts of India have always been negative for HPAI H5N1, waterbirds are frequently pointed to as possible carriers of the disease.

The study, launched by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and its partners, is the first of its kind in India. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which is a partner in the study, has set up a Web site where people can follow the daily movements of the satellite-tagged birds, including maps in Google Earth (see URL

"The ongoing HPAI H5N1 outbreaks in domestic poultry in India underscore the need to conduct scientific investigations to identify the mechanisms by which this virus is introduced into poultry or wild bird populations, or into new geographic locations," said Scott Newman, wildlife coordinator of FAO's infectious-animal-disease group.

map of India India, showing the locations on March 30, 2009, of all marked birds.
Above left: Generalized map of India, showing study sites in the states of Orissa and Tamil Nadu. [larger version]

Above right: India, showing the locations on March 30, 2009, of all marked birds. (Credit: William Perry, USGS) [larger version]

Chilika Lake, in India's Orissa state, is the largest brackish-water lagoon in Asia. It was one of the first internationally important Indian wetland sites listed under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands—an intergovernmental treaty signed in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran, that provides a framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. Chilika Lake was designated as a Ramsar site in 1981. More than 890,000 migratory and resident waterbirds, representing at least 226 species, use the lagoon for at least part of their life cycle. Additional research is being conducted in southern India at the Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary and at wetlands near Kanyakumari in the state of Tamil Nadu.

This study in India is part of a global program not only to better understand the movement of avian influenza viruses and other diseases in the Central Asian Flyway, but also to improve understanding of the ecological habits of waterbirds internationally, as well as the interactions among wild and domestic birds.

gadwall heads back to the lake teal and cooperators in the India satellite-tracking project
Above left: A gadwall heads back to the lake after being tested for avian influenza and fitted with a satellite transmitter. Photograph by Tracy McCracken, FAO. [larger version]

Above right: First-marked common teal and cooperators in the India satellite-tracking project. Photograph by Acty George, Bombay Natural History Society. [larger version]

Species that researchers marked include the common teal (Anas crecca), northern pintail (Anas acuta), northern shoveler (Anas clypeata), and bar-headed goose (Anser indicus), all species that have been afflicted with HPAI H5N1 in the past.

The HPAI H5N1 strain of avian influenza has caused the deaths of domestic poultry in India and of domestic poultry, wild birds, and people in many other countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe since 2003.

The study is being conducted in collaboration with the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Indian Ministry of Agriculture, the Bombay Natural History Society, Wetlands International, the USGS, the United Nations (FAO)-India, and the EMPRES-Wildlife Unit based at UN-FAO headquarters in Rome. Additional collaborators in Orissa are the State Wildlife Wing of the Forest Department, the Chilika Development Authority, and the Directorate of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Services. Additional collaborators in Tamil Nadu are the State Wildlife Wing of the Forest Department; the Directorate of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Services; the University of Wales, Bangor; the University of Birmingham; and the Max Planck Institute.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Genetics Provides Evidence for the Movement of Avian Influenza Viruses from Asia to North America via Migratory Birds
December 2008
Satellites Help Scientists Track Migratory Birds: GPS Latest Tool in Fight Against Avian Influenza
November 2006

Related Web Sites
Movements of Wild Birds and Emerging Disease Risk from India

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Modeling Climate Change and Ocean Acidification

Sediment Transport at Cape Hatteras

How Avian Influenza Spreads

Research Shorebird Recovery May Require Restrictions on Bait

Awards Research Achievements in Parasitology

Staff Woods Hole Science Center Hosts Delegation from India

Oceanographer Joins NOAA's Integrated Ocean Observing System Program

Publications Shifts in Killer Whale Diets

Polar Bear Habitat Distribution

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