The cause of the yearly death of an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 migrating dabbling ducks (Anas spp.) and 10 to 50 swans (Cygnus buccinator and C. columbianus) has remained a mystery for the last ten years in Eagle River Flats (ERF), a 1,000 ha estuarine salt marsh near Anchorage, Alaska, used for artillery training by the U.S. Army. We have gathered evidence that the cause of this mortality is the highly toxic, incendiary munition white phosphorus (P4). The symptoms of poisoning we observed in wild ducks included lethargy, repeated drinking, and head shaking and rolling. Death was preceded by convulsions. Farm-reared mallards dosed with white phosphorus showed nearly identical behavioral symptoms to those of wild ducks that became sick in ERF. White phosphorus does not occur in nature but was found in both the sediments where dabbling ducks and swans feed and in the gizzards of all carcasses collected in ERF. We hypothesize that feeding waterfowl are ingesting small particles of the highly toxic, incendiary munition P4 stored in the bottom anoxic sediments of shallow salt marsh ponds.
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Vol. 28 • No. 4