Puffinosis: the disease that time forgot

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106 years ago, a disease of Manx shearwaters (confusingly: Puffinus puffinus) was observed for the first time on the island of Skomer off the Pembrokeshire coast in South Wales. ‘Puffinosis’, as it came to be known, eluded formal description until after the Second World War, when it was recognised as a seasonal illness. Each year, at emergence from their burrows, up to half of all fledglings develop blisters on the webs of their feet and a range of neurological signs. Remarkably, the disease can be predicted to occur in mid-September of each year, restricted to the central parts of the islands of Skomer and neighbouring Skokholm. The other P. puffinus breeding colonies are apparently ‘puffinosis-free’.  This unique history has garnered the attention of scores of scientists from different institutions trying to answer the big question: what is causing it?Manx shearwater fledgling on stonewall

Post-mortem examinations of affected birds have yielded few pathological changes that might direct an investigation.  The Institute of Zoology has been involved since the mid-nineties when Andrew Cunningham examined shearwaters for the first time. Recently, efforts to pin down the cause of ‘puffinosis’ have been boosted with annual expeditions to Skomer. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend this year’s trip with IoZ’s Becki Lawson and ex-IoZ Marine Mammal Strandings Project veterinarian; Professor Thijs Kuiken, now based at the Erasmus University  Medical Centre in the Netherlands.

We were joining a group of eminent ornithologists, virologists and bioinformaticians from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Gloucester. We boarded the ‘Dale Princess’ from a partially submerged jetty and set sail across St. Brides Bay. As we cleared the harbour there were grey seals and gannets vying for our attention!

Our trusty tiger-mobile, the sunken jetty and the ‘Dale Princess’
Our trusty tiger-mobile, the sunken jetty and the ‘Dale Princess’

No sooner had we arrived and a deluge of Manx shearwaters was upon us. Running to time, the annual epizootic had started the day before we arrived. We set up a respectable post-mortem examination suite in the research station and set to work looking for lesions and collecting available tissues for future testing.

While we got our collective eye in, the team began scouring the island for sick birds and ‘healthy’ control carcasses courtesy of the predatory black-backed gulls. Their work was interspersed with spirited debate about various ‘puffinosis’ hypotheses and the merits of over a century’s conflicted research. Soon the search for bodies was expanded to include potential vectors. Light traps, human bait and trussed carcasses over water bowls were employed in the quest to detect a purported missing link.

Needless to say, the mystery is not yet solved. For now, we’ve got our work cut out processing the samples collected. It was an exhausting four days but well worth it. Highlights included watching shearwaters fledge by moonlight to begin their flight to Argentina (!), the hearty fare we were treated to each night and witnessing the excitement of office-bound scientists let loose in the field.  Skomer is a unique and beautiful island and the trip was made even better by the fact that we were there with extraordinary people.

the view from our post-mortem examination room
the view from our post-mortem examination room

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