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Avian Cholera Study Grant for Canadian Team

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A team of Canadian researchers at Carleton University has received more than $500,000 to study avian cholera, a disease that experts say can kill eider ducks even as they're sitting on their nests.

Scientists have become concerned because it has been showing up among eider ducks in the Arctic, the Ottawa Citizenreported.

"It's a new and emerging disease in the Canadian Arctic, which is quite worrisome," Grant Gilchrist, a researcher with Environment Canada's wildlife center on the Carleton campus, told the Ottawa Citizen.

As it happens, scientists have been studying the eider duck since 1996, Gilchrist said, which gives them a unique before-and-after view of the birds' population and health that will aid greatly in the research.

The researchers plan to investigate whether Arctic wetlands can harbor the disease during the summer, intensifying epidemics locally, said a press release from Carleton University. Given the Canadian Arctic's proximity to Greenland, avian cholera could easily spread, and researchers are studying birds there too. Residents of Inuit communities in Canada and Greenland are already doing field work in ongoing avian cholera monitoring programs, according to CBC News.

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Among other angles, they will look into why the disease persists even though the bacteria normally do not survive the Arctic winter. The three-year-long project is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, a Canadian grant-making organization and think tank. Researchers from Windsor, Rimouski and Norway are also on the team.

Normally found in southern areas of North America, avian cholera has also struck eider ducks and other birds in the eastern Arctic since 2004, the CBC said. Colonies on the southern coast of Baffin Island, in Foxe Basin and in Ungava Bay have been hit, and in summer 2006 Gilchrist discovered more than 3,000 dead eider ducks on Southampton Island in Nunavut, the CBC said.

"We're perplexed [with] how it spreads and how it is persisting," Gilchrist told CBC News.

The infection also shows up in other birds, including Canada geese, snow geese, king eider ducks and snow buntings, Gilchrist said, but added that the effects on eider ducks have been much more drastic.