New Hampshire loon dies of malaria

  • A loon swims on Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro in 2014. Scientists identified the first case of a loon dying of malaria, a tropical disease that threatens the iconic birds. AP

  • Tufts University veterinary intern Victoria Walmsley (left) draws blood from a banded adult loon in the lap of Loon Preservation Committee field biologist Janelle Ostroski in 2014. AP file

Associated Press
Published: 4/16/2016 11:32:56 PM

For decades, researcher Mark Pokras and his colleagues have been trying to understand what is killing loons.

Through thousands of blood samples taken over the past 30 years, they found these birds – a relatively common sight on many New England lakes – were suffering from lead and mercury poisoning as well as other pollutants.

But the researchers took some solace in knowing that loons, unlike birds that frequent more tropical climates, weren’t being sickened by avian malaria.

That, however, is changing.

Pokras and Ellen Martinsen, a Vermont-based research associate with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, started finding several different malaria parasites in loon blood samples a few years back. The latest data shows as many as 12 percent testing positive, though not all are expected be infected with malaria.

Then last summer, researchers found the first ever case of a loon – on Umbagog Lake located in Maine and New Hampshire – that died of the disease. Biologists and fans of the loons haven’t found another case yet, but they are looking for other dead birds.

Groups like the Loon Preservation Committee – whose offices are on the loon-populated Lake Winnipesaukee – have advised their volunteers to step up surveillance on lakes across the state. The Maine-based Biodiversity Research Institute has also started a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to further investigate the extent of the problem.

“I wouldn’t call it alarm bells but it certainly is raising eyebrows and emphasizing the need to look more,” said Pokras, an emeritus associate professor at Tufts University who is writing a book on loons. “It may certainly be this bird that died was unlucky or maybe it had some immune deficiency that made it more susceptible to the parasite. I doubt it but we don’t know that yet.”

Martinsen, who used molecular methods to screen the loon population for malaria parasites, said the concern is that the birds may not have defenses to protect them against an infection – much like humans with Ebola or West Nile “which wreaks havoc on our system.”

“We may be at the edge of discovering an emerging infectious disease of common loon which is pretty significant because it’s a vulnerable species,” Martinsen said. “It’s experienced significant population declines.”

Scientists believe the presence of the malaria parasite in loons offers further proof that climate change already is taking a toll on the region. As temperatures rise in New England, a parasite found more commonly in birds down in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana appears to be moving north.

“It was a stunning discovery for us simply because northern New Hampshire lakes were considered to be a refuge for loons,” said Harry Vogel, a senior biologist and executive director at the Loon Preservation Committee, a group of 1,500 that monitors and works to protect the nearly 300 pairs of loons statewide. That number is three times what it was 40 years ago, Vogel said, but half the historic levels.

In the case of the parasite infecting loons, humans need not worry since it exclusively targets birds. But the researchers said this could spell trouble for other boreal species like snowy owls, northern hawk owls, gyrfalcons, and boreal chickadees.

“I think we are going to see more and more diseases in these boreal distributed species,” said Martinsen, who is also a molecular biologist at University of Vermont. “This loon is sort of a sentinel. We were lucky to find it and diagnose the infection. As more and more people look at this, we are going to see more pathogens moving northward and getting into these susceptible wildlife species.”

Stay informed with our free email updates
Concord Monitor Daily Headlines
Concord Monitor Breaking News
Concord Monitor Dining & Entertainment
Concord Monitor Report For America Education
Concord Monitor Report For America Health
Concord Monitor Real Estate
Concord Monitor Sports
Concord Monitor Suncook Valley
Concord Monitor Contests & Promotions
Concord Monitor Weekly Most Popular
Concord Monitor Granite Geek
Concord Monitor Monitor Marquee
Concord Monitor Hopkinton
Concord Monitor Politics
Concord Monitor MY CONCORD
Concord Monitor Franklin

Concord Monitor Office

1 Monitor Drive
Concord,NH 03301


© 2021 Concord Monitor
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy

Customer Service

Social Media


View All Sections

Part of the Newspapers of New England Family