July 27 – I sea you!

Today’s factismal: Seabirds have a specialized gland that removes salt from their blood and pumps it out their noses.

If you ever see a seabird and it looks like it has a runny nose, don’t worry that it has the avian flu. Instead, take a closer look because you are seeing the bird’s salt gland in action. As you might guess from the name, the salt gland removes excess salt from the bird’s blood stream and pour it out the nose as a stream of incredibly salty water.

A dominican gull with its salt glands on display (My camera)

A dominican gull with its salt glands on display
(My camera)

But why does a seabird need a salt gland? For the same reason that turtles, sharks, and other critters that spend most of their time at sea do: because the ocean is very salty. That salt water makes its way into the bird’s food and into its drink which means that the bird ends up eating a lot more salt than it needs (sort of like the average teenager). This is not good for the bird’s kidneys which means that it would live a very short life if it weren’t able to get rid of the salt.And that’s why birds (and other critters) with salt glands do so well in their environment.

A brown pelican showing off its salt glands (My camera)

A brown pelican showing off its salt glands
(My camera)

Of course, no matter how well-adapted a critter is, eventually it dies. Most sea birds die at sea, where they are food for the fishes that were once their food. But some die on the beach where they become food for thought. By tracking the number of seabird deaths and the number of each species that are seen, scientists can use the seabirds as an early-warning system for environment changes, from pollution to freak storms to red tides to new diseases. But there’s an awful lot of coastline and only so many scientists, which is where you come in.

A herring gull in the sunset (My camera)

A herring gull in the sunset
(My camera)

The Seabird Ecological Assessment Network, or SEANET for short, is looking for some citizen scientists on the East Coast who are willing to report where and when they saw a dead seabird – or even a live one! If you’d like to help, then head over to their website:
http://www.tufts.edu/vet/seanet/

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