A new project is underway to help conserve some of Hawaiʻi’s charismatic waterbirds. Researchers at the University of Hawai‘i, supported by a Pacific Birds Partnership Grant, are working to better understand the threat of botulism. This is important to the success of the endemic ‘alae‘ula (Hawaiian Common Gallinule) and the Koloa Maoli (Koloa Duck) which evolved in isolation on the far-flung archipelago of Hawaiʻi and are already vulnerable to other threats including predation and habitat loss.
Malia Staab, of the Wildlife Ecology Lab run by Dr. Melissa Price, is working on a statewide botulism database that will allow managers to identify and evaluate historical and future trends in botulism outbreaks. They will also create a Waterbird Botulism Reporting Network to alert partners to outbreaks so that they can check their wetland sites and intervene early to stop any flare ups. The project will build on previous work by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arleone Dibben-Young, Director of the non-profit Nēnē O Molokai.
Environmental factors such as pH, temperature, salinity, and anoxia of wetlands contribute to botulism outbreaks. These factors can be hard to address in the field. One effective way to stop outbreaks is to remove dead birds before toxin-laden maggots develop and spread botulism to other birds. The project will lead to an early warning system, identifying hotspots to allow managers to act fast, and helping to direct resources where they are needed most. That might include using trained dogs to find dead birds–an approach being trialed at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge–or sending staff out on additional wetland patrols. Birds that are found in the early stages can often be rehabilitated–and with less than 1,000 ‘alae‘ula left in the world, every individual counts.
I am excited for this chance to work with a diverse array of people from Hawai'i's waterbird network! I hope this project will help to strengthen a established relationships, and provide opportunities for enhanced collaboration among wetland stewards. Avian botulism is a threat that unites everyone passionate about native waterbird health, I can't wait to get to know this community better.