Angry Birds? or Domoic Acid Toxicity

December 30, 2011, 9:00 pm

On August 18 1961 the Santa Cruz (CA) Sentinel reported a most unusual occurrence:

A massive flight of sooty shearwaters, fresh from a feat of anchovies, collided with shoreside structures from Pleasure Point to Rio del Mar during the night.
Residents, especially in the Pleasure Point and Capitola area were awakened about 3 a.m. today by the rain of birds, slamming against their homes.
Dead, and stunned seabirds littered the streets and roads in the foggy, early dawn. Startled by the invasion, residents rushed out on their lawns with flashlights, then rushed back inside, as the birds flew toward their light.
. . .
When the light of day made the area visible, residents found the streets covered with birds. The birds disgorged bits of fish and fish skeletons over the streets and lawns and housetops, leaving an overpowering fishy stench.

Alfred Hitchcock was staying nearby and was mesmerized by the story, even asking the Sentinel for a copy of their story. Two years later his film The Birds was released, in which for reasons unknown masses of seagulls attack the fictional town of Bodega Bay, CA and its inhabitants.  In Psycho the dramatic source of the film’s violence was easy to discern — Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) clearly had major mother issues and massive sexual frustration. In other words,the brutality in Psycho arouse from the psychopathology of the family.

But what did the avian mayhem in The Birds represent? Malevolent nature taking evil revenge? A sign of impending apocalypse? Or simply, well, Angry Birds?

Researchers at Louisiana State University think they have the answer. Bargu et al. published a letter in Nature Geoscience suggesting that the cause of the 1961 incident was poisoning from domoic acid, a toxin produced by phytoplankton that accumulates in the anchovies that make up a large part of the gull’s diet. The authors demonstrated large quantities of the toxin in plankton and specimens from marine animals collected in 1961.

Domoic Acid is also the cause of amnestic shellfish poisoning (ASP).  A neurotoxin, it is an analog of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamic acid, opening sodium channels and inducing depolarization. . Manifestations of ASP in humans include confusion, agitation, seizures, memory loss, motor neuropathy, coma and occasionally death. There is no antidote.

For a good quick review of all types of seafood poisoning —  from the amazing folks at Life in the Fast Lane — click here.



Comments are closed.