Date: November 11, 2015
Source: University of Georgia
People feeding white ibises at public parks are turning the normally independent birds into beggars, and now researchers at the University of Georgia say it might also be helping spread disease.
They recently launched a study to find out how being fed by humans is changing the health, ecology and behavior of white ibises in south Florida, where construction and land development is drying up their wetland habitats.
The birds normally feed on aquatic animals like fish, snails and crayfish, but they are now becoming accustomed to being fed items such as bread, fast food and popcorn by people at parks, said Sonia Hernandez, an associate professor with joint appointments in UGA's Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and College of Veterinary Medicine.
This shift in feeding behavior could have serious consequences not just for the white ibises, she said, but also to people.
"In a previous study, and using molecular typing methods, we found that the strains of salmonella bacteria that white ibises are infected with are the same that some people get sick from, particularly in Florida," Hernandez said. "Because white ibises move from urban to natural environments readily, they might be responsible for moving these strains around over large distances."
Hernandez is working with other UGA researchers on the five-year, $2.1 million project, funded by the National Science Foundation's Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases Program. Their findings could apply to other wildlife species that have grown cozy with humans at public parks and other human-altered landscapes, she said.
Other researchers on the project are Jeff Hepinstall-Cymerman, an associate professor in the Warnell School; Sonia Altizer, a professor, and Richard Hall, an assistant research scientist, both in the Odum School of Ecology; and Kristen Navara, an associate professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.