Researchers say a microscopic organism called a filamentous filament, or FIF, could be behind the massive bird die-off in North and Central America.
The discovery by the University of Minnesota’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute (EWSI) and the University and State University of New York’s Stony Brook Center for Infectious Diseases and Global Health, was published online March 15 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers say the filament is linked to bird deaths in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina, which is one of the most recent cases of a bird-to-bird outbreak.
A large number of bird deaths have occurred in Mexico and Central and South America in recent years.
“The most recent large-scale FIF-related bird death occurred in Ecuador in July 2016, when thousands of migrating bluebirds and a dozen other birds were killed,” said lead author Jonathan Kriegel, a postdoctoral fellow in EWSI’s School of Ecology, Evolution and Systems Biology.
“That was the first known FIF death in the Americas.”
The researchers analyzed a range of other bird species in South America, including birds like parrots, quail and blackbirds, as well as insects like beetles and grasshoppers.
The research team found that the filamentous filaments, which resemble the shape of a human hair, were more abundant in tropical and subtropical rainforest habitats, including in the Amazon rainforest.
It is likely that the fungi may have been present in these habitats for millions of years before they emerged, said EWSIs lead author, John D. Smith, an ecologist in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University at Buffalo.
The filamentous fibers, or fibrils, may also have been involved in the origin of birds.
Researchers think the fungi can enter the bird through its skin, where they become attached to a surface called the “belly” or its interior, or the inside of the wing.
The FIF may then have passed from the bird to its host by way of a fungus, like an algae or bacteria, and become part of its body.
This is how the filament found in Mexico is linked with the death of so many birds.
“We don’t know what causes FIF infections, but we do know that they cause an infection that kills the bird, and that it may be transmitted to others,” Smith said.
The fungus that caused the death in Ecuador may have originated from a fungus that has become more prevalent in South American rainforests in recent decades.
The authors say that FIF infection could be a sign of future infection in South and Central American rainforest, but that the virus that causes FIM in humans has yet to be identified.
The researchers say that it is important to keep the fungus from infecting other birds or other animals, such as fish, in the same way that we protect ourselves from the spread of other pathogens.
They say it is time to do this because FIF could be the beginning of a pandemic.
The study is the first to link FIF to an outbreak in the United States.
The EWSIS is an international collaboration of scientists studying how environmental change is altering ecosystems and the health of wildlife.
In addition to Smith and his colleagues, the research team included researchers from the University, the University’s Department of Earth Sciences, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Uppsala University.
They also collaborated with scientists from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRIS), the University Research Center for Ecological Research in France, the Instituto de Investigaciones Ecologia y Bioecologia (IIEB), and the Center for Applied Microbial Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).