Could loons face diseases like the one that killed nearly 6 million bats?

In a story published Friday night, I wrote about concerns some scientists have about the common loon population, which is robust in adults, but seems lagging in numbers of chicks. The threats facing the birds are numerous, and my Friday story focused on mercury in the environment, which could explain why more and more adult loons are not creating more and more offspring.

I did make note of other threats, however, in the context that things like lead weights and shorefront development could weaken the loon population leading into what looks like a potential numbers drop-off.

Another of the threats has the potential to be as scary as anything listed above: Fungal disease.

You may have read about the fungal disease currently wreaking havoc on the country’s bat populations, the so-called White-Nose Syndrome (read more coverage, led by BDN Outdoors Editor John Holyoke and our environmental expert Kevin Millerhere, here, here and here).

If you haven’t, the long and short of it is that U.S. wildlife officials have estimated the fungal disease, which has attacked bat populations during the little fellows’ hibernations, has reduced the American and Canadian bat populations by nearly 6 million.

What does this have to do with loons? Well, at Tufts University, veterinarians and veterinary students have been studying the bodies of dead loons collected from throughout the northeast to determine causes of death and line up some data on the subject.

A loon eats a crab at the mouth of the Scarborough River last week. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

According to the Maine Audubon Society’s Susan Gallo — who was at the Northeast Loon Study Working Group meeting in New Hampshire, at which the Tufts research was discussed, when we spoke — among the more alarming causes of death being found are fungal diseases, immediately drawing to mind the type of population destruction that has hit the bats.

I didn’t get the sense that we’re quite at that level yet, and while some of the fungal diseases being seen in loons are new, the birds are not being ailed by the so-called White-Nose Syndrome.

Instead, somewhat perplexingly, it seems some of the fungal diseases killing loons in the American northeast are more like the fungal diseases killing the coral reefs.

Obviously, previously unseen diseases killing beloved wild animals is a cause for concern, especially when we’ve seen what such diseases have already done to other animals in the same region.

There may be more to the story of loons and their future.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.