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Birds' Malarial Death Seen as Sign of Climate Change

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, the 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.


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