‘Eagle killer’ research wins international award

Bald eagle mass death events from vacuolar myelinopathy (VM) in the southeastern United States may be one downstream effect of human activity, and Susan B. Wilde was awarded the 2022 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize for hunting the eagle killer and identifying the cyanobacterial neurotoxin that causes it.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the Science family of journals, has announced the 2022 winners of the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books.

The eight awards honor scientists, engineers, authors, journalists and other public servants for their contributions to our understanding of science and come with cash prizes of $5,000 to $25,000 each.

The Newcomb Cleveland Prize honors the work of Wilde, an associate professor of aquatic science at the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, and Timo Niedermeyer, professor of pharmacognosy at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany.

Bald eagle mass death events may be one downstream effect of human activities that have clearly negative effects on the natural world

Published in March 2021, their research highlights the emerging issues posed by toxic cyanobacteria in habitats beyond lakes and reservoirs, such as the deadly effects it has on bald eagles and other southeastern waterfowl.

Although many human activities have clear negative effects on the natural world, there are also many unforeseen consequences.

Bald eagle mass death events from VM in the southeastern United States may be one such downstream effect of human activity.

Wilde—along with Steffen Breinlinger, Tabitha J. Phillips, Brigette N. Haram, Jan Mareš, José A. Martínez Yerena, Pavel Hrouzek, Roman Sobotka, W. Matthew Henderson, Peter Schmieder, Susan M. Williams, James D. Lauderdale, H. Dayton Wilde, Wesley Gerrin, Andreja Kust, John W. Washington, Christoph Wagner, Benedikt Geier, Manuel Liebeke, Heike Enke, and Timo H. J. Niedermeyer—identified the cause of these events as an insidious combination of factors.

Colonization of waterways by an invasive, introduced plant provided a substrate for the growth of a previously unidentified cyanobacterium.

Cyanobacteria, also known as Cyanophyta, are a phylum of Gram-negative bacteria that obtain energy via photosynthesis.

Exposure of this cyanobacterium to bromide, typically anthropogenic in origin, resulted in the production of a neurotoxin that both causes neuropathy in animals that prey on the plants and also bioaccumulates to kill predators such as bald eagles.

Her findings implicate toxicity arising from human activities, including reservoir construction, invasive aquatic plants, and human use and distribution of bromine-containing chemicals in the environment, making this report of great importance to society in understanding the broader impact of our interactions with nature.

In the end, Wilde reminds us of the incredible complexity of natural systems and how humans continue to act upon those systems with little or no regard for future consequences.

The Newcomb Cleveland Prize is the AAAS organization’s oldest award, dating to 1923, and is presented to the authors of the best research article or report published in Science each year.

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