Botulism in the Great Lakes: Not just for canned foods anymore

Common Loons, Source: flickr creative commons, (C) Ano Lobb

This post was originally published at Mind the Science Gap on Nov. 8, 2012.

Less than a month ago, volunteers at Sleeping Bear Dunes started noticing a problem. Dozens of loons and other aquatic birds were washing up from the Great Lakes, dead from botulism poisoning. While botulism is present in the Great Lakes and birds do die from it, biologists are reporting that the ducks are dying in far higher numbers than usual. Botulism is usually associated with improperly prepared canned goods, so why is it swimming around the Great Lakes?

First off, What is botulism?

Botulism is an illness caused by the toxin produced by a specific type of bacteria – Clostridium botulinum. This toxin causes muscle paralysis, and if untreated can result in death. Treatment can include pumping the victim’s stomach, flushing the lower gastrointestinal tract with an enema, or administration of an antitoxin. (Not a pleasant experience, I am sure.) Continue reading