Effects of influenza A virus infection on migrating mallard ducks
The natural reservoir of influenza A virus is waterfowl, particularly dabbling ducks (genus Anas). Although it has long been assumed that waterfowl are asymptomatic carriers of the virus, a recent study found that low-pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) infection in Bewick's swans (Cygnus columbianus bewickii) negatively affected stopover time, body mass and feeding behaviour. In the present study, we investigated whether LPAI infection incurred ecological or physiological costs to migratory mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) in terms of body mass loss and staging time, and whether such costs could influence the likelihood for long-distance dispersal of the avian influenza virus by individual ducks. During the autumn migrations of 2002-2007, we collected faecal samples (n=10918) and biometric data from mallards captured and banded at Ottenby, a major staging site in a flyway connecting breeding and wintering areas of European waterfowl. Body mass was significantly lower in infected ducks than in uninfected ducks (mean difference almost 20g over all groups), and the amount of virus shed by infected juveniles was negatively correlated with body mass. There was no general effect of infection on staging time, except for juveniles in September, in which birds that shed fewer viruses stayed shorter than birds that shed more viruses. LPAI infection did not affect speed or distance of subsequent migration. The data from recaptured individuals showed that the maximum duration of infection was on average 8.3 days (s.e. 0.5), with a mean minimum duration of virus shedding of only 3.1 days (s.e. 0.1). Shedding time decreased during the season, suggesting that mallards acquire transient immunity for LPAI infection. In conclusion, deteriorated body mass following infection was detected, but it remains to be seen whether this has more long-term fitness effects. The short virus shedding time suggests that individual mallards are less likely to spread the virus at continental or intercontinental scales.