Unprecedented mortality occurred in bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at DeGray Lake, Arkansas, during the winters of 1994-1995 and 1996-1997. The first eagles were found dead during November, soon after arrival from fall migration, and deaths continued into January during both episodes. In total, 29 eagles died at or near DeGray Lake in the winter of 1994-1995 and 26 died in the winter of 1996-1997; no eagle mortality was noted during the same months of the intervening winter or in the earlier history of the lake. During the mortality events, sick eagles were observed overflying perches or colliding with rock walls. Signs of incoordination and limb paresis were also observed in American coots (Fulica americana) during the episodes of eagle mortality, but mortality in coots was minimal. No consistent abnormalities were seen on gross necropsy of either species. No microscopic findings in organs other than the central nervous system (CNS) could explain the cause of death. By light microscopy, all 26 eagles examined and 62/77 (81%) coots had striking, diffuse, spongy degeneration of the white matter of the CNS. Vacuolation occurred in all myelinated CNS tissue, including the cerebellar folia and medulla oblongata, but was most prominent in the optic tectum. In the spinal cord, vacuoles were concentrated near the gray matter, and occasional swollen axons were seen. Vacuoles were uniformly present in optic nerves but were not evident in the retina or peripheral or autonomic nerves. Cellular inflammatory response to the lesion was distinctly lacking. Vacuoles were 8-50 microns in diameter and occurred individually, in clusters, or in rows. In sections stained by luxol fast blue/periodic acid-Schiff stain, the vacuoles were delimited and transected by myelin strands. Transmission electron microscopy revealed intramyelinic vacuoles formed in the myelin sheaths by splitting of one or more myelin lamellae at the intraperiodic line. This lesion is characteristic of toxicity from hexachlorophene, triethyltin, bromethalin, isonicotinic acid hydrazide, and certain exotic plant toxins; however, despite exhaustive testing, no etiology was determined for the DeGray Lake mortality events. This is the first report of vacuolar myelinopathy associated with spontaneous mortality in wild birds.
Additional Publication Details
Epizootic vacuolar myelinopathy of the central nervous system of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and American coots (Fulica americana)