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Released April 19, 2004


By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG - Research conducted by biologists at The University of Southern Mississippi could help health officials piece together the puzzle of West Nile Virus, a potentially fatal disease transmitted by mosquitoes.

For the benefit of the Center for Disease Control, researchers in the Department of Biology at Southern Miss recently completed a three-week experiment on the migratory patterns of birds, which are believed to spread the virus through their seasonal flight patterns.

"There is a lot of speculation about the role migrating birds might play in the dispersal of West Nile Virus," said Jen Owen, doctoral student and principal researcher for the experiment.

"There is a cycle between birds and mosquitoes. Birds are the amplifying hosts; once they become infected the virus amplifies in their system. Then when a mosquito bites the bird, it may contract the virus, so it continues the cycle between the mosquitoes and birds."

Owen said CDC researcher Nick Komar from the Ft. Collins, Colo., office contacted the Southern Miss biology department about studying the migratory pattern of infected birds. At issue was whether or not birds would adhere to their instinctive flight habits once they were infected with the virus.

The principal question was whether a bird infected with West Nile Virus has the ability and motivation to fly.

Owen said: "You can't tell that by catching a bird in migration because you don't know where it became infected. That's where our lab came in. We wanted to find out if the birds with the disease still exhibited migratory behavior."

Under the direction of Dr. Frank Moore, professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, a team of student researchers studied and cared for the birds for several weeks. Using three species - Swainson's Thrush, Gray Catbird and Woodthrush - they developed a unique caged experiment to observe the behavior of the subjects, which they infected with WNV under strictly controlled conditions.

"Their willingness to migrate is actually endogenous, meaning if you put a bird in a cage it will still migrate," Owen said. "Even in a cage it will display the appropriate behavior in different seasons. In spring it will begin hopping, and the amount of that hopping directly correlates to the distance it would have traveled in the wild."

When a bird is initially infected, Owen said, the virus amplifies and the bird may become infectious for four to five days. During that time, a mosquito must bite the infected bird to contract the virus. "But will the bird continue to migrate when it gets sick?" Owen asked. "Will it fly across the country?"

"If you catch a bird in Florida with West Nile, there is no way of knowing if it contracted the virus there or in New York," she said. "A bird is capable of flying from New York to Florida in a few days, so there is the potential a bird infected in New York may still be infectious when it arrives in Florida several days later."

Typically, the transmission of West Nile Virus is restricted between birds and mosquitoes. Infected mosquitoes spread the disease to mammals, but individuals in most species of mammals do not get sick from the virus. Therefore, mammals are thought to be "dead-end hosts" because the virus does not amplify in their blood to levels high enough to become infectious.

After studying the test group and the control group for three weeks, researchers observed that the infected birds appeared to maintain their normal migratory habits, Moore said. However, it is still unclear whether or not they were "sufficiently infected," he said. "At this point we don't know if the levels were high enough (in the birds) to infect a mosquito in the wild."

Data and blood samples from the experiment have been sent to the CDC. The team at Southern Miss is currently awaiting the results of blood tests that will determine how infectious the WNV birds were during testing. Owen will present the team's findings this summer at the American Ornithologists Union Conference in Illinois.

Other participants in the research project included Rachel Bru, Julie Rich, Christina Sykes, Michael Dodge and Nick Young.

While most of the attention about West Nile centers around public health issues, there are other concerns, Moore said, namely how the virus will permanently affect the wildlife population.

"We're worried about how it might affect endangered species," he said. "With small populations, a disease like this can have drastic consequences."


OCEAN SPRINGS -- Award-winning wildlife photographer Tom Ulrich will lead two photographic events at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory on Wednesday, March 10.

He will present a nature photography workshop from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and then a talk and slide show called "Wildlife Images 2003" at 7 p.m., both at The University of Southern Mississippi GCRL.

Admission to the evening event is free and will be held in the Caylor Auditorium at GCRL. The veteran photographer will feature photos from his 2003 photographic safaris abroad and in North America. He will answer questions and sign his books during the reception following his slide show.

The registration fee for the all-day workshop is $50 per person, payable to GCRL. Registration includes a continental breakfast, light lunch and snacks. Participation is limited to 20. Though the workshop is geared toward beginners, Ulrich tailors the experience to meet needs for all degrees of skill.

"The beginners will definitely benefit from the workshop, but I always help the more advanced get something out of it also," Ulrich said. "I lead many photo trips and always find a wide range of levels."

Ulrich said participants do not need to bring their photographic equipment unless they need an explanation about some aspect of their equipment.

Topics include a brief review of the principles of photography, relationships between shutter and aperture settings, fundamental elements of composition, use and timing of fill-in flash, digital versus film photography, techniques of close-up photography, and a brief discussion of slide etiquette, the photography business and marketing.

Ulrich grew up in South Chicago, graduated with a degree in biology from Southern Illinois University and taught for four years before launching his career as a freelance photographer. He has supported himself with nature photography for the past 29 years.

His library of more than 300,000 transparencies includes birds and mammals from all over the world. His photographs have been featured in publications such as National Wildlife, Audubon, National Geographic, Montana Outdoors and Life.

He has published six nature books, including Mammals of the Rockies, Birds of the Northern Rockies, Once Upon a Frame and his 2002 release, Photo Pantanal. Dr. William E. Hawkins, GCRL executive director, said Ulrich brings the scientific and artistic worlds together.

"Tom earns his living photographing wildlife all over the world," Hawkins sad. "He is an outstanding observer and a biologist. His approach to photography is to capture his subjects exhibiting their natural behavior."

The GCRL is home to the university's Department of Coastal Sciences, the Center for Fisheries Research and Development, and the Gulf Coast Geospatial Center. The J.L. Scott Marine Education Center and Aquarium is also a unit of the laboratory. The GCRL is part of the Southern Miss College of Science and Technology. For more information, call the laboratory at (228) 872-4200.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM