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Satellite-marked waterfowl reveal migratory connection between H5N1 outbreak areas in China and Mongolia




The role of wild birds in the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 has been greatly debated and remains an unresolved question. However, analyses to determine involvement of wild birds have been hindered by the lack of basic information on their movements in central Asia. Thus, we initiated a programme to document migrations of waterfowl in Asian flyways to inform hypotheses of H5N1 transmission. As part of this work, we studied migration of waterfowl from Qinghai Lake, China, site of the 2005 H5N1 outbreak in wild birds. We examined the null hypothesis that no direct migratory connection existed between Qinghai Lake and H5N1 outbreak areas in central Mongolia, as suggested by some H5N1 phylogeny studies. We captured individuals in 2007 from two of the species that died in the Qinghai Lake outbreaks and marked them with GPS satellite transmitters: Bar-headed Geese Anser indicus (= 14) and Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea (= 11). Three of 25 marked birds (one Goose and two Shelducks) migrated to breeding grounds near H5N1 outbreak areas in Mongolia. Our results describe a previously unknown migratory link between the two regions and offer new critical information on migratory movements in the region.