By Tanya Lewis, LiveScience Staff Writer | LiveScience.com
They were dropping like flies.
One by one, the blackbirds started dying, with no obvious cause. That year, 2001, the birds completely disappeared from the city of Vienna.
The bird population rebounded a few years later, but meanwhile, researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, started doing some detective work. The team initially suspected West Nile virus might have caused the blackbird die-off, but the tests weren't conclusive.
A closer look revealed the killer was a related pathogen called Usutu virus, but how it arrived in Vienna was a mystery. Now, the scientists have identified that the virus first appeared in Italy in 1996.
"This virus was not very well-known, because it had never been related to any disease," study leaderand pathologist Herbert Weissenböck told LiveScience. When it cropped up in 2001 in Vienna and other parts of Europe, "it was the causative agent of huge avian mortality," he said.
Recently, Weissenböck and his colleagues at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, learned of a similar mass dying of blackbirds that took place in Tuscany, Italy, five years earlier, in 1996. At the time, the cause was unknown, but scientists at the University of Camerino saved tissue samples from the dead birds in paraffin wax.
Weissenböck's team analyzed the samples and found the same strain of Usutu virus that had hit Vienna. "It was just a guess, because the major species in Italy had been blackbirds as well,"Weissenböck said.
The Vienna scientists sequenced the genetic material from the Tuscany samples and samples from infected Vienna birds, finding a match between the two viruses. A second test, using antibodies for the virus, confirmed the match.