Great Lakes: Botulism in Lakes Erie and Ontario
About Botulism

Botulism, a disease caused by Clostridium botulinum, has been recognized as a major cause of mortality in migratory birds since the 1900s.  Although type C botulism has caused the die-off of thousands of waterfowl (especially ducks) across the western United States, type E botulism has been mainly restricted to fish-eating birds in the Great Lakes. Other outbreaks of type E have sporadically occurred in Alaska, Florida and California, and periodic outbreaks have occurred in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron over a 20-year period beginning in 1964.  During 1999 and 2000, a large die-off of waterfowl occurred in Lake Erie and type E botulism was isolated in these outbreaks. In 2001, a large die-off of benthic fishes like sheepshead occurred along the shores, followed in the fall by another die-off of fish-eating birds.

The bacterium is classified into seven types (A-G) by using characteristics of the neurotoxins that are produced. The toxins produced by C. botulinum are among the most potent biological poisons, warranting human health and safety concerns. These neurotoxins bind to the receptors on nerve endings, impacting neuromuscular function, which results in the paralytic effect on birds. Impacted waterfowl typically show signs of weakness, dizziness, inability to fly, muscular paralysis, and respiratory impairment. Often, the inner eyelid or nictitating membrane becomes paralyzed, impairing the bird's normal vision.

Although type C and type E avian botulism outbreaks occurred in the Great Lakes in the past, there are some significant differences between the two types. Type C botulism primarily impacts dabbling ducks and bottom-feeding waterfowl, although shorebirds may also fall victim to this type of botulism. In type C botulism, the bacterium, C. botulinum, does not produce toxin unless it is infected by a specific "phage" or virus. This relationship with a phage is not known to exist with type E. Type E botulism typically impacts fish-eating birds like loons and grebes. Several species of gulls that are common in the Great Lakes region have been impacted by type C and type E botulism. While live fish can carry spores of type E botulism, it is not known whether they can carry the toxin itself or become sick and die from the toxin. Type E toxin has been found in carcasses of several species of Great Lakes fish, including round gobies, and researchers are studying the role this invader may play, if any, in recent outbreaks of the disease in Lake Erie.

Spores of both type C and type E botulism are naturally found in anaerobic habitats such as soils and aquatic sediments, and can also be found in the intestinal tracts of live, healthy animals. The spores can remain in the ecosystem for extended periods of time, even years, and are quite resistant to temperature extremes and drying. In the absence of oxygen, with a suitable nutrient source, and under favorable temperatures and pH, spores can germinate and vegetative growth of bacterial cells can occur (Brand, et. al 1988).

Botulism toxin is only produced during vegetative growth, not when the bacterium is in its spore stage. Decaying animal and insect carcasses provide favorable conditions for botulism toxin production since the decay process uses up oxygen and creates anaerobic conditions (Friend, et al. 1996).

It has long been known that type C botulism is perpetuated through a carcass-maggot cycle. Researchers have now determined that type E botulism can also be spread through this cycle. Birds and fish that have died from botulism decay and become hosts for maggots. The maggots may contain the botulism toxin and if fed upon by birds, the cycle is continued.

Human Health Considerations

Human botulism is typically caused by eating improperly canned or stored foods and normally involves type A or type B botulism toxin. There have been several fatalities during the 1960s in the Great Lakes basin attributed to type E toxin, but these were caused by eating improperly smoked or cooked fish that contained the toxin. Humans, dogs, and cats are generally considered resistant to type C avian botulism (Friend, et al. 1996).

The toxin found in food items will be killed by proper cooking of fish and waterfowl. When canning or smoking fish or waterfowl, methods should be used that incorporate sufficient heat to insure that any toxins will be killed off. Anglers and hunters should avoid harvesting any sick or dying fish or waterfowl, or those demonstrating unusual behavior, in areas where avian botulism has occurred. People should not handle dead birds or fish with bare hands. The use of gloves or an inverted plastic bag is recommended in order to avoid risks. If a diseased or dead bird is handled without gloves, hands should be thoroughly washed with hot soapy water or an anti-bacterial cleaner.

In case of a die-off, individuals are urged to contact local agencies responsible for fish and wildlife management to notify them of fish and bird mortalities. It is important to record the location, type of birds or fishes, and number of carcasses found. Stakeholders should follow agency recommendations in handling dead fish and wildlife. In certain areas, burying of the carcasses is allowed, in other areas incineration may be recommended. If birds are to be collected, they should be placed in heavy plastic bags to avoid the spread of botulism-containing maggots.


Brand, Christopher J., Stephen M. Schmitt, Ruth M. Duncan and Thomas M. Cooley An Outbreak of Type E Botulism Among Common Loons (Gavia immer) in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 24(3), 1988, pp. 471-476.

Friend, Milton, Louis N. Locke and James J. Kennelly, National Wildlife Health Laboratory, Madison, Wisconsin. 1996. Avian Botulism Factsheet.

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