Deformed Birds Could Indicate A Polluted Gulf

Mar 23, 2016

Biologists say they’re worried about wildlife after discovering deformed birds on Sanibel Island. It’s too early to tell, but these defects could indicate a bigger problem for the Gulf of Mexico. 

While conducting routine research on Sanibel’s beach, biologist Audrey Albrecht with Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation came across a flock of royal terns, and something her caught eye. 

"I noticed one of them had what appeared to be a third bill or some kind of deformity and then I noticed another one also had it," said Albrecht.

She said the two had typical bills for royal terns – thick, orange and pointed, but they both also had an orange protrusion coming out from underneath the regular bill, curving upward. Albrecht only snapped a couple pictures of the birds, and that’s pretty much all the data on them right now.

Credit Audrey Albrecht / Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation

Dr. Jerry Jackson is a retired sciences professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, and a renowned ornithologist. He said without more information, it’s hard to know why this is happening. 

But the fact that there are two of these terns with the same malformation worries him because it suggests it’s not just an “oddball mutation.” He said something else might be going on. 

"It’s something that we need to know because this could be an early warning signal that something is wrong," said Jackson. "We don’t know that something is wrong but it certainly looks, to me, like there could be."

Jackson said it’s likely that pollutants are producing the mutation. He said the next step is for him and Sanibel biologist Audrey Albrecht to work with scientists who study pesticides and impacts of chemicals on wildlife.