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OVC One Health researchers believe much to learn from Canada Geese

Canada Geese flying over trees (IStock Credit_RCKeller)Canadians know autumn is on its way when the famous V formations fill our skies with the familiar honk of the Canada Goose. But not everyone loves the iconic Canada Goose. As their numbers increase in parks and on beaches around the country, they are sometimes tapped as nuisance birds.
Through recent research, scientists at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College learned more about these winged wonders.
One Health researchers Claire Jardine and David Pearl believe geese are particularly important to study, because of their movement patterns between different environments, from south to north, from urban to rural.
Each has an interest in how pathogens (bacteria, viruses, or other disease-causing microorganism) spread through the movement of birds and other wildlife, and were intrigued by the role geese might play in transmitting antimicrobial resistant bacteria.
Antimicrobial resistance (when bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites become resistant to the medicines used to treat them) is recognized as one of the most pressing health concerns of the 21st century and there is an ecological component, notes Jardine. “Even though antimicrobial resistance may develop in humans or in livestock it doesn’t stay there, it has the opportunity to move into our waterways and soil. Wildlife are often left out of this equation but potentially have a role in transmitting resistance.”
With graduate student Nadine Vogt, OVC DVM 2014, the team studied how frequently a few key enteric (gut) bacteria are carried by Canada geese. They looked at Salmonella, Campylobacter, and antimicrobial resistance in E. coli.
An initial two-year study conducted from 2013 to 2015 included birds from three sources: birds provided by hunters, birds submitted to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (a cross-Canada network of partners and collaborators dedicated to wildlife health), and swabs from fresh goose droppings in parks in the Guelph area. A second study, conducted over a six-month period from May to October in 2016 focused on examining fresh fecal swabs from geese in the Guelph area.
The team found virtually no Salmonella in the fecal samples they tested. However, the overall prevalence of antimicrobial resistant E. coli was almost eight per cent in one study. Campylobacter, the number one cause of bacterial food-borne illness in humans in Canada, showed up in 9 to 11 per cent of birds sampled in the two studies.
Interestingly, during nesting season when geese have moulted their feathers, they were generally less likely to carry Campylobacter and antimicrobial resistant E. coli. It appeared that when the birds were volant and flew to different locations to forage, their exposure to certain pathogens increased. The potential role of these birds as sentinels of foodborne and other pathogens in the environment continues to intrigue the researchers.
The OVC team collaborated closely with the Public Health Agency of Canada and study funders from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, relationships that helped in terms of the scope of the research.
“We talked to our partners about the nature of the project and sought advice from them,” said Jardine. “This expertise helped in terms of reframing questions, considering human and animal health policy perspectives and in asking questions that we might not have initially considered.”
“Ultimately the results of our wildlife research can play a part in the development of various risk assessment models by government collaborators and identify needs and priorities for their surveillance programs,” adds Pearl. “Similarly, the pathogens or genetic elements associated with antimicrobial resistance we chose to investigate are highly influenced by both public health and OMAFRA’s surveillance and research programs, which in turn are influenced by emerging pathogens or genetic elements in Canada or elsewhere in the world.”
Notes Pearl, these types of projects need to integrate animal behaviour, molecular biology, geographic information systems, spatial analysis, statistics and epidemiology. “To solve and analyze complex health issues, we need to work with many partners as no one can answer these types of questions on their own,” says Jardine.