To improve the lives of wild animals, we must first understand them. By supporting research into the welfare of wild animals, the Wild Animal Initiative aims to both answer welfare questions and build the infrastructure to answer more questions in the future. We support a study on an epidemic killing magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) chicks because we believe it has the potential to serve these purposes simultaneously.
The project also presents an unprecedented opportunity for supporters to directly support research, thanks to the scientific crowdfunding site Experiment.com. Through June 21, 2021, every donation to the project, no matter how small, increases researchers’ chances of winning an additional $1,250 for research materials.
Identify the causes of a seabird pandemic
Grand Connétable is just a small rocky island off the coast of French Guiana, but it has been a haven of sorts for magnificent frigatebirds: their only breeding site on a 1,500 km (930 mile) stretch of coastline. ). Today, a new herpes virus kills up to nine out of ten chicks on the island every year.
Like many wild animals, frigatebirds generally suffer from high juvenile mortality rates. Even in stable populations in relatively high quality habitat, about half of the chicks die young from disease, starvation, exposure, or other causes. But on Grand Constable, something exacerbates the usual threats.
Dr. Manrico Sebastiano, a postdoctoral researcher at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, thinks he knows why. Mercury used in land-based gold mining flows into the ocean, accumulating in the bodies of fish and the frigates that eat those fish. Because mercury can interfere with prolactin, a hormone that regulates parenting behavior, Dr. Sebastiano and his team suspect pollution is causing more frigatebirds to neglect or abandon their chicks. The more malnourished and unprotected chicks there are in a colony, the easier it is for a virus to infect, mutate and spread.
But as long as it is only a hypothesis, we do not know how to react to the epidemic. Dr. Sebastiano’s team wants to test their hypothesis by measuring mercury levels in the Grand Constable’s frigates and equipping them with GPS trackers. This will allow them to see if adults with higher mercury loads are more likely to neglect or abandon their chicks. It will also reveal how often these birds overlap with other nesting colonies, hence the likelihood of the virus spreading.
The researchers have already funded a basic version of their project, in part through a grant from the Wild Animal Initiative. But given the chaos and idiosyncrasies of wild systems, a study’s sample size can make or break whether it can tell signal from noise. Sebastiano and his team are therefore turning to basic science supporters to cover the costs of buying more GPS trackers and checking more colonies for signs of the virus spreading.
Understand common threats to wildlife welfare
So far, this virus mainly affects a single population of a single bird species. But because this case combines several common threats to wildlife welfare, understanding it could advance efforts to help animals around the world.
Like the Grand Constable’s frigates, wild animals everywhere are vulnerable to disease. Even when diseases don’t cause death, they can still cause prolonged or intense suffering. Still, there are several reasons why the disease can be a relatively easy problem to solve. Medical and veterinary sciences provide a solid foundation for further wildlife-specific research. In fact, many efforts are already underway to control wildlife diseases, largely due to the the health risks they pose to humans and livestock. Although there are huge variations between diseases in wildlife, Dr. Sebastiano’s study is poised to produce relatively generalizable results, as it focuses on the environmental factors that contribute to poor health, rather than on the specific etiology of frigatebird herpesvirus.
Juvenile deaths are particularly important for understanding wildlife welfare because most animals die young. For example, in a analysis of published demographic models of 88 animal species, we found that the average lifespan was only 16% of the species’ maximum lifespan. Despite the fact that so many wild animals die as juveniles, the earliest stages of life are often the least studied. The Grand Constable is a promising place to fill this gap. Behind the extraordinarily high child mortality rate of frigatebirds lies a confluence of common threats to the well-being of many species: parental neglect, malnutrition and infection.
If Dr. Sebastiano is correct, these natural causes of death are exacerbated by human activity. Although the proposed study focuses on the apparent harms of gold mining, it is interesting to note that these frigates have also benefited from human activity. Bycatch discarded by shrimpers provided frigatebirds with an abundant and accessible food source until the industry declined in the region (Martinet & Blanchard 2009). Again, Grand Constable serves as a microcosm for the complex forces shaping animal welfare around the world.
Support the construction of academic fields
Wild Animal Initiative has already funded part of the proposed study, in collaboration with the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and another European donor. Now we’re asking wildlife advocates to contribute the rest.
Local donors can support wildlife welfare science in ways that institutional donors cannot. When many people participate in a project, it may signal broader public support for that line of research. We believe this could, in turn, attract more researchers and institutional funders to similar projects. If this effect exists, we predict it will be particularly strong for wildlife welfare: an area of research that is surprisingly under-explored compared to mainstream concern for wildlife suffering.
Crowdfunding also offers the general public an exceptionally concrete way to contribute to the advancement of science. This might engage more supporters than abstract calls to support the field as a whole.
If the bottom-up and top-down benefits of crowdfunding are large enough, they have the potential to fuel a virtuous cycle of growth on the ground: grassroots support attracts more institutional support, which then attracts more grassroots support.
In addition to the scientific merits of the frigate study, we look forward to testing the viability of crowdfunding as a field-building approach. One campaign won’t be enough to know for sure, but the success of this pilot project will facilitate further investigation. If you share our interest in supporting the growth of an autonomous academic field dedicated to improving the lives of wild animals, we encourage you to join this effort to protect frigatebird chicks.