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Keywords:

  • avian influenza virus;
  • mallards;
  • migration;
  • reservoir host;
  • stable isotopes;
  • surveillance

One of the fundamental unknowns in the field of influenza biology is a panoramic understanding of the role wild birds play in the global maintenance and spread of influenza A viruses. Wild aquatic birds are considered a reservoir host for all lowly pathogenic avian influenza A viruses (AIV) and thus serve as a potential source of zoonotic AIV, such as Australasian-origin H5N1 responsible for morbidity and mortality in both poultry and humans, as well as genes that may contribute to the emergence of pandemic viruses. Years of broad, in-depth wild bird AIV surveillance have helped to decipher key observations and ideas regarding AIV evolution and viral ecology including the trending of viral lineages, patterns of gene flow within and between migratory flyways and the role of geographic boundaries in shaping viral evolution (Bahl et al. 2009; Lam et al. 2012). While these generally ‘virus-centric’ studies have ultimately advanced our broader understanding of AIV dynamics, recent studies have been more host-focused, directed at determining the potential impact of host behaviour on AIV, specifically, the influence of bird migration upon AIV maintenance and transmission. A large number of surveillance studies have taken place in Alaska, United States—a region where several global flyways overlap—with the aim of detecting the introduction of novel, Australasian-origin highly pathogenic H5N1 AIV into North America. By targeting bird species with known migration habits, long-distance migrators were determined to be involved in the intercontinental movement of individual AIV gene segments, but not entire viruses, between the Australasian and North American flyways (Koehler et al. 2008; Pearce et al. 2010). Yet, bird movement is not solely limited to long-distance migration, and the relationship of resident or nonmigratory and intermediate-distance migrant populations with AIV ecology has only recently been explored by Hill et al. (2012) in this issue of Molecular Ecology. Applying a uniquely refined, multidimensional approach, Hill et al. validate the innovative use of stable isotope assays for qualifying migration status of wild mallards within the Pacific flyway. The authors reveal that AIV prevalence and diversity did not differ in wintering mallard ducks with different migration strategies, and while migrant mallards do indeed introduce AIV, these viruses do not circulate as the predominant viruses in resident birds. On the other hand, resident mallards from more temperate regions act as reservoirs, possibly contributing to the unseasonal circulation and extended transmission period of AIV. This study highlights the impact of animal behaviour on shaping viral evolution, and the unique observations made will help inform prospective AIV surveillance efforts in wild birds.