A description of the gross pathology of drowning and other causes of mortality in seabirds

Victor R Simpson* (Corresponding Author), David N Fisher

*Corresponding author for this work

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Mortality of seabirds due to anthropogenic causes, especially entrapment in fishing gear, is a matter of increasing international concern. This study aimed at characterising the gross pathology of seabirds that drowned in fishing nets and comparing it with that in other common causes of mortality.

Post-mortem examinations were performed on 103 common guillemots, 32 razorbills, 37 shags and 5 great northern divers found stranded in Cornwall during 1981–2016. Pathology in birds that died in confirmed incidents of drowning in fishing nets (n = 95) was compared with that in cases of suspected drowning (n = 6), oil (n = 53) and polyisobutylene (PIB) (n = 3) pollution, adverse weather (n = 6) and stranding of unknown cause (14). The majority of drowned birds were in good nutritional state, freshly dead and approximately 50% had freshly ingested fish in their proximal gut. Principle lesions were: gross distention of the heart and major veins with dark blood, intensely congested, swollen and oedematous lungs which released white frothy fluid when excised, watery fluid in the air sacs that ranged from clear to deep red depending on state of carcase preservation. PIB-affected birds were in good nutritional state; their pathology was largely consistent with that in confirmed drowning cases; it is likely that drowning was the ultimate cause of death. Birds affected by oil, adverse weather or that stranded due to unknown cause were all in poor or emaciated condition, the mean body mass of the guillemots and razorbills being, respectively, 53 and 57% of those that drowned. They had little or no food in their alimentary tracts and many showed evidence of enteric inflammation, haemorrhage and ulceration. None had fluid in their air sacs and none showed significant cardio-respiratory system lesions.

Drowned birds consistently showed a distinctive set of gross pathological lesions. When combined with contemporaneous observations, the pathology may be sufficient to permit a diagnosis of drowning, especially where a batch of freshly dead birds are examined. The observations in this study are likely to be of value when investigating stranding incidents, particularly where it is suspected that legislation aimed at protecting seabirds is not being complied with.
Original languageEnglish
Article number302
JournalBMC Veterinary Research
Publication statusPublished - 12 Oct 2017

Bibliographical note

Contributions to the cost of post-mortem examinations were made to VRS by Natural England and by Cornwall Wildlife Trust Marine Strandings Group. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.


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