|Photo by USFWS Endangered Species
On top of that, they have to deal with Oxyspirura petrowi - a nematode (roundworm) parasite that lives in their eyes - on the front and/or behind the eyeballs. And these worms aren't small either, they can grow to more than 15 mm long and they feed on blood too, causing severe haemorrhaging and swelling around the eyes. So being infected with O. petrowi can cause a significant impairment to the host. Based on studies on a related species - Oxyspirura mansoni (which infects poultry) - it is most like that the prairie chicken are infected when they eat arthropods which contain the larval stage of the worm and research is still under way to try and figure out which arthropod is the carrier.
|Photo of Oxyspirura petrowi from fig 1 of this paper
The lesser prairie-chicken is not the only bird that gets infected by O. petrowi, this worm also infects various game birds like pheasants and quails, as well as some migratory songbirds. If a bird cannot see properly, then it is not going be very good at flying without eventually hitting something. And some prairie-chickens have been reported to fly into vehicles or even the side of barns. Obviously such birds are not going to be very good at evading predators if they cannot even avoid flying into a barn. So is the worm also contributing to the prairie chicken's decline, or something else?
Mercury and lead are both metals that can contaminate the environment as by-products of burning fossil fuel, spent ammunition, and industrial activities. Both have well-documented toxicity effects on animals including neurological damage that results in sensory impairment, convulsions and behavioural disorders. Another common pollutant is organochloride. While organochloride pesticides have been banned or restricted for years, they can linger in the environment for a long time and accumulate up the food chain. In high enough dosage, such pesticides have been known to cause reproductive impairment as well as convulsion and emaciation in birds.
The researchers behind this study analysed the level of these chemical pollutants in the organs of some prairie chickens from Kansas, and while they found traces of all three in the prairie chicken's organs, they were all below the level at which they would being harmful. The level of organochloride was just as they had expected given the birds were from an area that used to be a farmland. As for the two metals, the lead levels lower than toxicity level and the levels of mercury were below detectable limits.
What they did find was a higher prevalence of O. petrowi than they had expected from the region, and some of the birds they examined had up to 16 worms in their eyes. It is worth noting that the birds these researchers sampled were donated by hunters, so it is likely that the eyeworms made them easier targets. So is O. petrowi playing a role in the prairie chicken's decline? It seems unlikely given that birds like bobwhites have been documented to be infected with even higher levels of this worm. But its presences is certainly not helping and may interfere with some conservation practices.
For example, one current conservation practice to put up signs and coloured marking tape around fence lines to reduce bird-fence collisions. The idea is that the fences are clearly marked out so the prairie chickens can avoid running into them. But if they are half-blind from having a bunch of worms in their eyes, they might instead end up using those markers as targets and fly headlong into the fence.
When trying to protect any species in a complex environment, it is important to also take their parasites into account, as their presence might confounds your expectations. To save the prairie chickens, you might first have to understand the eyeworm.
Dunham, N. R., Peper, S. T., Baxter, C. E., & Kendall, R. J. (2014). The Parasitic Eyeworm Oxyspirura petrowi as a Possible Cause of Decline in the Threatened Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus). PloS One 9, e108244.
P.S. You can read my article about other blinding parasites in The Conversation here.