In 1995, the discovery of leg malformations in several screech owl (Otis asio) nestlings and in their female parent at a Department of Energy (DOE) Superfund site in South Carolina prompted an investigation into the nature of the observed abnormalities. Surviving nestlings and the female parent were transferred to a captive screech owl breeding colony at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD. The malformed female parent and her offspring were each mated with normal owls from the colony for 3 yr. Matings of the malformed female produced five malformed and six normal owls; all owls produced by matings of normal offspring were normal. Malformed offspring were euthanized when it became apparent that their physical distress precluded survival under normal conditions of colony care. Euthanized owls were necropsied and examined for skeletal development. Detailed descriptions of eight malformed owls are presented. Results of the matings indicated that the leg malformations were caused by a genetic trait in the female parent that was heterozygous dominant. The characteristic was lethal except in occasional mild manifestations and resembled an extreme form of a dominant abnormality previously described for domestic fowl called duplicate polydactyly. Other reports of skeletal abnormalities in wild birds and potential environmental causes of genetic mutations at the DOE Super-fund site are presented. Other studies performed at the DOE Superfund site do not implicate elevated (above background) ionizing radiation from '37Cs, the dominant radio-nuclide where the owls were captured, as the cause of the mutation. The cause of this genetic abnormality remains unknown.
Additional Publication Details
Unusual leg malformations in screech owls from a South Carolina Superfund site
Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A