From Virginia Water Radio for the week of March 30, 2015.

Click here to listen to episode audio (4:08)


“This week, we feature a mystery sound mix. Have a listen for about 15 seconds, and see if you can guess what water-related bird disease is the focus of research related to these sounds.

If you guessed avian malaria, you’re right! You heard Red-winged Blackbirds, a mosquito’s buzz, and the buzz of an electric- power station. All relate to aspects of research by Virginia Tech Biological Sciences graduate student Laura Schoenle on avian malaria in Red-winged Blackbirds, an abundant species often seen near water in Virginia and all of North America. Ms. Schoenle’s work tackles some of the challenging complexity of connections among living organisms, their environments, and human activities, including human energy use. Let’s consider some of those connections.

Malaria, named after an Italian phrase for “bad air,” is caused by single-celled parasites transmitted by blood-feeding mosquitoes. Several parasite species can cause avian malaria, but these species are different from several others that cause human malaria. Ms. Schoenle’s research focuses on how Red-wings’ physiology responds to the stress of a malaria infection, particularly the birds’ immune response and the levels of glucocorticoids, which are hormones in humans, birds, and other animals that regulate stress responses. Ms. Schoenle is also investigating whether that stress response may be affected by mercury in the birds’ food, which in summer is largely aquatic insects and other organisms in aquatic food webs. Nationwide, air emissions from coal- and oil-fired electric power plants are a significant source of atmospheric mercury, which can travel hundreds of miles, eventually be deposited into water bodies, and potentially enter aquatic food webs.

Parasites, mosquitoes, birds, aquatic insects, human energy use, air, water, mercury...if this weren’t already complicated enough, stress-response hormones in birds—as well as in you and me—affect not only immune systems but many interconnected organs and functions, such as the brain, circulation, and blood-sugar levels.”