During 1996, type C avian botulism killed over 15,000 fish-eating birds at the Salton Sea in southern California. Amont those affected were nearly 10,000 western white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) and over 1,200 endangered California brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus). Since 1996, smaller epizootics have occurred every year. Type C botulism is not typically associated with fish-eating birds. In the case of the Salton Sea, Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus) are the suspected source of type C toxin, although the mechanism by which the fish acquire the toxin is still unknown.
The goals of this study were to: 1) Determine presence/absence of active Clostridium botulinum type C and type C botulinum toxin in tilapia in the Salton Sea. 2) Use geospatial analyses to evaluate relationships between patterns of mortality in birds and fish and presence/absence of toxin and/or toxin-producing bacteria in sediments and fish.
We investigated a method of detecting C. botulinum type C cells in the intestinal contents of Mozambique tilapia. This method involved extraction of predominantly cellular DNA and uses a polymerase chain reaction assay to detect presence of type C toxin gene. We collected sick, dead and healthy fish from various sites throughout the Sea during the summers of 1999 to 2001 in order to test them for the presence of active C. botulinum type C by PCR and for the presence of type C toxin by ELISA and mouse test. The results demonstrate that the tilapia population in the Salton Sea harbors C. botulinum type C cells within their gastrointestinal tract and the prevalence of this organism varies from year to year. The total number of fish with toxin-producing bacteria was significantly greater in 2000 than in 2001. No difference in the numbers of positives was detected between sick and dead fish compared to live fish, and there were no differences noted with regard to location of fish collection. The prevalence of active type C toxin in tilapia was low and the majority of samples positive for toxin by ELISA were negative on mouse test. Further investigation is currently underway.
From 1999-2001, routine surveillance was conducted July through November to detect morbidity and mortality in pelicans. Location of retrieval and total number of birds collected were documented. In all three years, the majority of botulism-affected pelicans were retrieved from the vicinities of the river deltas although the Whitewater River had the fewest birds of the three. It has yet to be determined what roles the tilapia and pelican populations play in influencing these patterns.
Additional Publication Details
The epizootiology of type C botulism in fish-eating birds at Salton Sea, California