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Chapter 11 - Mycoplasmosis

Authors: Milton Friend.

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Chronic respiratory disease, infectious sinusitis, house finch conjunctivitis.

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Mycoplasmosis is caused by infection with a unique group of bacteria that lack cell walls but possess distinctive plasma membranes. Mycoplasma are also the smallest self-replicating life-forms, and they are responsible for a variety of diseases in humans, animals, insects, and plants. These bacteria can cause acute and chronic diseases in hosts that they infect, and they are also implicated with other microbes as causes of disease when the immune system of the host has become impaired through concurrent infection by other disease agents or through other processes. This chapter focuses on mycoplasmal infections of birds, the most significant of which are caused by Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG), M. meleagridis (MM), and M. synoviae (MS). Only MG is of known importance for wild birds.

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Species Affected

Until recently, mycoplasmosis has not been considered an important disease of wild birds. During late winter 1994, eye infections in house finches caused by MG were first observed in the Washington, D.C. area. Since then, mycoplasmosis has rapidly spread throughout much of the eastern range of the house finch. Mycoplasmosis has also appeared in wild populations of American goldfinch within the eastern United States. Clinical or observable disease caused by MG has not previously been found in wild passerine birds in the United States despite a long history and common occurrence of MG in poultry wherever poultry are raised. Molecular studies of isolates from the songbirds shows that those isolates are similar but that they are distinctly different from isolates obtained from poultry.

M. gallisepticum is a known pathogen of upland gamebirds raised in captivity, and it has been isolated from ducks and geese. Studies of mycoplasmosis in Spain have resulted in isolation of MG from free-ranging peregrine falcons, and isolation of MG from a yellow-naped Amazon parrot is further evidence of a diverse host range that can become infected by this organism (Table 11.1). Strain differences of MG exist and differ in their ability to cause clinical disease. Also, isolates of the same strain can vary widely in their ability to cause clinical disease in different species. This variance in the ability to cause clinical disease is, in part, shown by the greater numbers of birds that have antibody to MG than by the presence of mycoplasmosis in species and populations tested. The isolates of MG from wild songbirds do not cause significant disease in chickens.

Chickens and turkeys are commonly infected with MG, and direct contact of susceptible birds with infected carrier birds causes outbreaks in poultry flocks. Aerosol transmission via dust or droplets facilitates spread of MG throughout the flock. Transmission through the egg is also important for poultry, and MG is thought to spread by contact with contaminated equipment. The highly gregarious behavior of house finches and their use of birdfeeders likely facilitates contact between infected birds or with surfaces contaminated with the bacteria. Infected finches are thought to be responsible for spreading this disease because they move between local birdfeeders and to distant locations during migration.

M. meleagridis causes an egg-transmitted disease of domestic turkeys, and it appears to be restricted to turkeys. Clinical disease has not been documented in wild turkeys, and reports of infection in other upland gamebirds have not been confirmed. Airborne transmission and indirect transmission by contact with contaminated surfaces also happen. M. synoviae has a broader host range than MM. Chickens, turkeys, and guinea fowl are the natural hosts. Several other species have been naturally infected, and others have been infected by artificial inoculation. Transmission is similar to that for MG, except that MS spreads more rapidly.

Many other avian mycoplasmas have been designated distinct species, some of which are identified in Table 11.2. The number of mycoplasma species identified from birds has increased rapidly during recent years and it will continue to grow. For example, M. sturni was recently isolated from the inner eyelids (conjunctiva) of both eyes of a European starling that had the clinical appearance of MG infection in house finches. Enhanced technology is providing greater capabilities for studying and understanding the biological significance of this important group of microorganisms. Too little is known about mycoplasma infections in wild birds to currently assess the significance of these organisms as a disease factor, although the house finch situation clearly illustrates the potential for clinical disease to occur. Of added significance is the suppression of reproduction through lowered egg production that commonly affects poultry. Reproduction has also been suppressed during natural MG infections of captive chukar partridge, pheasants, peafowl, and other species and during experimental studies with MM in wild turkey. Preliminary studies at the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) with M. anatis isolated from a wild duck resulted in reduced hatchability of mallard eggs inoculated with that isolate and decreased growth of the infected hatchlings.

Mycoplasmas have been recovered from domestic or semidomestic ducks since 1952, but the bacteria have not been reported from wild North American waterfowl before a 1988– 1990 waterfowl survey by scientists from the NWHC. M. anatis has more recently been isolated from wild shoveler ducks and coot and from a captive saker falcon during surveys conducted in southern Spain. The finding of M. anatis in three different major groups of wild birds (Falconiformes, Gruiformes, Anseriformes) demonstrates how the ability of a single strain to infect different avian groups could facilitate interspecies transmission.

Table 11.1 Reported occurrence of selected avian mycoplasmas of poultry in selected wild avian species.
* Indicates free-ranging species. All other reports are natural infections in captive-reared birds.

Mycoplasma sp

Type of birds

M. gallisepticum (MG)

M. meleagridis (MM)

M. synoviae

M. gallinarum

Chicken Frequent Infrequent or not reported Common Common
Domestic turkey Frequent Common Common Occasional
Pigeons Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported Occasional Occasional
Peafowl/guinea fowl Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported Common Infrequent or not reported
Pheasants/quail/partridge Occasional Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported
Wild turkey Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported* Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported
Ducks/geese Occasional Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported
Birds of prey Infrequent or not reported* Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported*
Songbirds Common* Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported* Infrequent or not reported
Parrots Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported Infrequent or not reported

Table 11.2 Primary hosts of some mycoplasma species isolated from birds (--, no data available)


Primary host

Chicken Turkey Pigeons Waterfowl Partridge Birds of prey Songbirds
M.gallisepticum * * -- -- -- -- --
M.synoviae * * -- -- -- -- --
M.iowae * * -- -- -- -- --
M.gallopavonis -- * -- -- -- -- --
M.cloacale -- * -- -- -- -- --
M.gallinarum * -- -- -- -- -- --
M.gallinaceum -- * -- -- -- -- --
M.pullorum * -- -- -- -- -- --
M.iners * -- -- -- -- -- --
M.lipofaciens * -- -- -- -- -- --
M.glycophilum * -- -- -- -- -- --
M.columbinasale -- -- * -- -- -- --
M.columbinum -- -- * -- -- -- --
M.columborale -- -- * -- -- -- --
M.anatis -- -- -- * -- -- --
M.anseris -- -- -- * -- -- --
M.imitavis -- -- -- * * -- --
M.sturni -- -- -- -- -- -- *
M.buteonis -- -- -- -- -- * --
M.falconis -- -- -- -- -- * --
M.gypis -- -- -- -- -- * --

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Avian mycoplasmas cause disease in poultry and other captive-reared birds worldwide. The current reported distribution of mycoplasma-caused conjunctivitis in wild song-birds roughly corresponds with the distribution of the eastern house finch population (Fig. 11.1).

Figure 11.1
Click Illustration for full-page viewReported geographic spread of house finch inner eyelid inflammation (conjunctivitis) since the initial 1994 observation. (Data adapted from reports in the scientific literature and personal communications between the National Wildlife Health Center and other scientists.)

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Because mycoplasmas in poultry are commonly transmitted through the egg and are present in carrier birds, there is no distinct seasonality associated with disease in those species. Observations of house finch conjunctivitis are most frequent when birds are using birdfeeders during the colder months of the year.

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Field Signs

Mycoplasma infections in poultry are generally more severe than those reported for house finches, the only wild bird for which any substantial field observations of clinical disease have been made. The prominent field signs are puffy or swollen eyes and crusty appearing eyelids (Fig. 11.2). A clear to somewhat cloudy fluid drainage from the eyes has been reported for some birds. Birds rubbing their eyes on branches and birdfeeder surfaces have also been reported. Other observations of infected birds include dried nasal discharge, severely affected birds sitting on the ground and remaining at feeders after other birds have departed, and birds colliding with stationary objects due to impaired vision. The European starling recently diagnosed to have been infected by M. sturni had similar clinical signs and was apparently blind.

Initial field signs observed during a natural outbreak of MG in a backyard gamebird operation included foamy eyes, excessive tearing, and severely swollen sinuses in chukar partridge and ring-necked pheasant, along with reduced egg production. As the disease progressed, severe depression, lethargy, and weight loss preceded respiratory distress and death. Eye inflammation was the only sign observed in Indian blue peafowl that became infected.

A captive saker falcon from Spain infected with M. anatis displayed signs of respiratory illness in addition to involvement of the eyes. Irregular breathing, wheezing, and a mucous discharge from the nose and beak were seen in this bird along with anorexia or loss of appetite. These signs are typical of mycoplasmosis in poultry.

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Gross Lesions

Mycoplasmosis lesions in wild birds reflect the observed field signs. Infected house finches typically have a mild to severe inflammation of one or both eyes and the surrounding area including swollen, inflamed eyelids; a clear to a cloudy, thickened discharge from the eye; and drainage from the nares of the bill (Fig. 11.2). Chukar partridge and pheasant naturally infected with MG have had moderate to severe swelling of the eyelids, mild to moderate tearing, swelling of one or both of the sinuses near the eyes, and moderate to large amounts of cheesy discharge within the sinuses.

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Mycoplasma are among the most difficult organisms to grow from clinical specimens because of their fastidious nature, intimate dependence upon the host species they colonize, and slow growth on artificial media. The greatest success in isolating MG from house finches has been when tissue swabs were obtained from live trapped, freshly killed, or fresh dead birds. There has been limited success from frozen carcasses. When mycoplasma is suspected, contact with a disease diagnostic laboratory is recommended to obtain guidance on how to handle specimens. If field conditions permit, selective media provided by a diagnostic laboratory should be inoculated with swabs from the inner eyelids, sinus, the funnel-shaped area at the back of the sinuses where they split right and left (choanal cleft), and trachea of suspect birds and shipped to the laboratory with the freshly killed or dead birds from which those swabs were made. If birds can be submitted, they should be chilled, rather than frozen, and immediately transported to a qualified disease diagnostic laboratory.

Figure 11.2 Field signs and gross lesions of Mycoplasma gallisepticum infections in house finches: A) and (B) Inflammation of the eye; (C) pasty, crusty appearance of the area surrounding the eye of a dying house finch.
Click Photo for full-page view(A) Click Photo for full-page view(B) Click Photo for full-page view(C)

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Routine cleaning and disinfection of birdfeeders with household bleach is recommended to prevent mycoplasmosis and other diseases that can be transmitted at birdfeeders. A 10 percent solution of household bleach applied weekly for feeders with high bird use will reduce the potential for contaminated surfaces to transmit disease. Close observation of birds using feeders and the prompt reporting of suspect cases of mycoplasmosis to authorities will provide the opportunity for early intervention based on timely diagnosis and for initiating an appropriate disease-control strategy specific to the location and population involved. Special consideration needs to be given to the fact that house finch conjunctivitis is a new and emerging disease problem that has been documented in two additional species of songbirds. One of these included a case where a blue jay being rehabilitated in a cage previously occupied by an infected house finch became infected. That case demonstrates the need for adequate cleaning and disinfection of cages used in wildlife rehabilitation. Birds that survive infection can become disease carriers that serve as a source for initiating new outbreaks. Also, aerosol and egg transmission of mycoplasmosis is common for poultry. Similar transmission is likely for wild birds and must be taken into consideration during the rehabilitation of wild birds infected with mycoplasmosis.

The potential for interspecies transmission of MG from poultry to upland gamebirds being reared in captivity for sporting purposes must also be considered. This same consideration exists for raptors that may be fed poultry carcasses and waste.

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Human Health Considerations

None. Mycoplasmas that infect birds are not known to be hazards for humans.

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Supplementary Reading

  • Cookson, K.C., and Shivaprasad, H.L., 1994, Mycoplasma
    gallisepticum infection in chukar partridges, pheasants, and
    peafowl: Avian Diseases, v. 38, p. 914–921.
  • Dhondt, A.A., Tessaglia, D.L., and Slothower, R.L., 1998,
    Epidemic mycoplasmal conjunctivitis in house finches from
    eastern North America: Journal of Wildlife Diseases, v. 34,
    p. 265–280.
  • Fischer, J.R., Stallknecht, D.C., Luttrell, P., Dhondt, A.A., and
    Converse, K.A., 1997, Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis in wild
    songbirds: The spread of a new contagious disease in a mobile
    host population: Emerging Infectious Diseases, v. 3, p. 69–72.
  • Poveda, J.B., Carranza, J., Miranda, A., Garrido, A., Hermoso, M.,
    Fernandez, A., and Comenech, J., 1990, An epizootiological
    study of avian mycoplasmas in southern Spain: Avian
    Pathology , v. 19, p. 627– 633.

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