Virologist Graham Burgess got more than he bargained for during a recent wild bird surveillance operation near Townsville, finding a wayward 1.8 metre saltwater crocodile had become trapped in one of his bird cages.
Dr Burgess and his team from James Cook University have been collecting samples over the last year from wild ducks at Billabong Wildlife Sanctuary, 20 km from Townsville, to test them for avian influenza, or ‘Bird Flu’, virus strains.
So he was pretty surprised when he got the phone call just after sunrise of their unintentional catch.
The crocodile, along with several other juveniles, had been released a few years earlier as part of another group’s research. While all other crocodiles were recaptured, even professional trappers hadn’t been able to bring the last one in.
“They had been trying to catch him for over a year, because he was getting pretty big and was becoming a threat, but he was pretty devious,” said Dr Burgess. “He was nicknamed Scooter because he would scoot away any time they came close to catching him.”
“Then one morning, on a routine check, we found that we had accidentally caught Scooter in one of our bird traps,” he said. “It was a pretty unlikely find.”
Dr Burgess’ wild bird screening program is supported by the Australian Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre for Emerging Infectious Disease and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF). This is part of an Australia-wide program managed by DAFF that looks for avian influenza viruses in wild birds. Dr Burgess and his team have been taking samples from wild ducks for almost a year to screen for Bird Flu, including testing for the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain that has killed birds and people overseas, though so far no birds in Australia have tested positive for this strain.
The study is the first to systematically monitor the presence of Bird Flu virus strains in wild bird populations of northern Queensland, one of the two major entry points for birds migrating to Australia from the Asia-Pacific region. Wild bird populations, in particular ducks, are thought to be the natural reservoir for avian influenza viruses, though the viruses that circulate in these populations are usually not pathogenic for the ducks.
“Exotic avian influenza viruses could be introduced into Australia by wild birds,” said Dr Burgess. “We are trying to get as much information as we can about how they are introduced and transmitted so we are better equipped to deal with them.”
“While biosecurity may sound like something out of James Bond, it rarely involves fighting crocodiles,“ commented Dr Stephen Prowse, CEO of the Australian Biosecurity CRC. “We, the travelling public, still pose a significant threat to our nation's biosecurity every time we fail to declare items at the airport. Any poultry meat, eggs or feathers brought in from overseas could bring avian influenza to Australia.”
“All poultry owners, including backyard enterprises, hobby farmers and bird fanciers, play an important part in the fight against bird flu. Poultry owners should remain vigilant for signs of disease and practise good biosecurity.
Good biosecurity includes maintaining physical barriers, such as screens to prevent wild birds mingling with production birds, treating water for birds where it is drawn from dams and rivers, ensuring the integrity of feed supplies and good hygiene for people handling birds.”
The Australian Biosecurity CRC was established to aid in improving early detection and management of emerging infectious disease threats in Australia and the region.