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Thursday, 07 November 2013 21:27

Mysterious NM Elk Death Solved

Elk Hunting Elk Hunting

Earlier this year we at Shotem and Caughtem reported on the mysterious death of a hundred different elk in New Mexico from an unknown source.  A hunter stumbled on the carcasses while out scouting.  They have since been able to trace the culprit behind the deaths.  Believe it or not the deaths were caused from an old ranch water tank.  A form of blue green algae had grown in the unmaintained water tank at a close by ranch.  The scientists we able to analyze what was left of the animals and match the water to the water tank found a hundred yards away from where the herd was found.  

Through science and further testing of elk tissue samples and water samples, the real killer has finally been found: pond scum. Or, more specifically, a neurotoxin produced by one type of blue-green algae that can develop in warm, standing water.

A bloom of this alga can be devastating to wildlife. "In warm weather, blooms of blue-green algae are not uncommon in farm ponds in temperate regions, particularly ponds enriched with fertilizer," according to a classic toxicology reference book, "Casarett and Doull's Toxicology: The Basic Science of Poisons" (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2013). "Under these conditions, one species of alga, Anabaena flos-aquae, produces a neurotoxin, anatoxin-A, which depolarizes and blocks acetylcholine receptors, causing death in animals that drink the pond water. The lethal effects develop rapidly, with death in minutes to hours from respiratory arrest."

In other words, the elk herd suffocated to death, unable to breathe. And the fast-acting toxin explains the animals' strange, sudden deaths. In this case, the algae appeared not in ponds, but in three fiberglass livestock watering tanks not far from where the elk died. The elk also showed signs they had struggled on the ground, further supporting neurotoxin poisoning.

"Based on circumstantial evidence, the most logical explanation for the elk deaths is that on their way back to the forest after feeding in the grassland, the elk drank water from a trough containing toxins created by blue-green algae or cyanobacteria," Mower said in a statement from the Department of Game and Fish.

The algae-produced neurotoxin is similar to curare, the famous toxin found in poison-tipped arrows used by South American Indian tribes. Though anatoxin-A can be deadly to other animals, including dogs and cattle, reports of human deaths are rare. New Mexico ranchers have been advised to sanitize their livestock tanks to prevent further wildlife deaths.

Many of us hunters travel from from the water tap to reach our destinations and should make sure that we take every precaution when out in the field to make sure the water we drink has been properly handled.  We should also take not when in the field to help alert officials to potential contamination when out in the field from water tanks such as these.  I know we at Shotem and Caughtem find human evidence in many of the back country to which we travel.  

Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below and as always post your photos and adventures to the galleries and share you story.


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