Avian vacuolar myelinopathy (AVM) was recognized in 1994 as a cause of wild bird mortality when 29 bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) succumbed to the disease at DeGray Lake, Arkansas (USA). The cause of AVM and its source remain undetermined despite extensive diagnostic and research investigations. Two years later, when AVM killed 26 eagles in the same area in Arkansas, it became apparent that American coots (Fulica americana) had identical neurologic signs and lesions, and it was hypothesized that eagles acquired AVM via ingestion of affected coots. In order to test this hypothesis, we fed coot tissues (brain, liver, kidney, muscle, fat, and intestinal tract) to rehabilitated, non-releasable red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis). Five hawks received tissues from coots with AVM lesions, and one hawk received tissues from coots without brain lesions that had been collected at a site where AVM never has been documented. All hawks received 12–70 g/day (mean=38 g) of coot tissues for 28 days. All six hawks remained clinically normal during the study. The birds were euthanatized on day 29 and microscopic lesions of AVM were found in all hawks that received tissues from affected coots, but not in the hawk that received tissues from unaffected coots. This marks the first time that AVM has been produced in birds under laboratory conditions and proves that birds of prey can acquire AVM via ingestion of tissues from affected coots.
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Vol. 39 • No. 2