U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Date of this Version



Published in Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 139:976–988, 2010. DOI: 10.1577/T09-051.1


Myxobolus cerebralis, the cause of whirling disease in salmonids, has dispersed to waters in 25 states within the USA, often by an unknown vector. Its incidence in Yellowstone cutthroat trout Oncorhynchus clarkii bouvieri within the highly protected environment of Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park, is a prime example. Given the local abundances of piscivorous birds, we sought to clarify their potential role in the dissemination of M. cerebralis. Six individuals from each of three bird species (American white pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, double-crested cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus, and great blue heron Ardea herodias) were fed known-infected or uninfected rainbow trout O. mykiss. Fecal material produced during 10-d periods before and after feeding was collected to determine whether M. cerebralis could be detected and, if so, whether it remained viable after passage through the gastrointestinal tract of these birds. For all (100%) of the nine birds fed known-infected fish, fecal samples collected during days 1–4 after feeding tested positive for M. cerebralis by polymerase chain reaction. In addition, tubificid worms Tubifex tubifex that were fed fecal material from known-infected great blue herons produced triactinomyxons in laboratory cultures, confirming the persistent viability of the parasite. No triactinomyxons were produced from T. tubifex fed fecal material from known-infected American white pelicans or double-crested cormorants, indicating a potential loss of parasite viability in these species. Great blue herons have the ability to concentrate and release viable myxospores into shallow-water habitats that are highly suitable for T. tubifex, thereby supporting a positive feedback loop in which the proliferation of M. cerebralis is enhanced. The presence of avian piscivores as an important component of aquatic ecosystems should continue to be supported. However, given the distances traveled by great blue herons between rookeries and foraging areas in just days, any practices that unnaturally attract them may heighten the probability of M. cerebralis dispersal and proliferation within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.