Seabirds and Bacteria

I had some free time at the beach recently in Woods Hole, Mass., before starting a week of lectures and meetings with some of the most impressive oceanographers in the world. But I forgot to bring a book, so I occupied myself by watching seabirds harass a pair of beachgoers who’d brought snacks and thought it wise to share.

White gulls, brown gulls and several other shorebirds hopped along the sand with (mostly) quiet anticipation, until a thrown bit of food sent them into a flurry of screeches and feathers. It was all very entertaining, but I might have been more concerned about this had I first seen science writer Maryn McKenna’s dispatch from an infectious diseases meeting in Chicago. These birds were probably depositing nasty drug-resistant bacteria right at our feet.

McKenna reports on a small study of seagulls at Miami Beach, whose stools (such as they are) were found to contain 83 isolates of gut bacteria, including 21 drug-resistant forms of E. coli. “Seagulls could be an important vector of multi-drug resistant bacteria,” said study author Dr. Patrice Nordmann of the Hopital de Bicetre near Paris. And earlier studies seem to bolster this theory: ordmann and others have found similar results in Portugal, Siberia, Alaska, Greenland, Russia and the south of France, McKenna reports on her blog at Wired.

What does this mean for beach lovers? In most cases, a good scrubbing will eliminate the vast majority of bacteria from your clothes and your body, so it’s not like you should avoid the beach just because of the gulls. But it does suggest a smart beach strategy: Don’t feed the birds! If they stay at a healthy distance, maybe their poo will, too.

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