Background: The epidemiology of avian influenza viruses (AIVs) in gulls is only partially known. The role of the world's most numerous gull species, the black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), as a potential AIV reservoir species has been unclear. The prevalence of AIV and humoral response against AIV were therefore studied in a colony of apparently healthy black-legged kittiwakes breeding in a nesting cliff in the South West Barents Region of Norway (70°22' N, 31°10' E), in 2008 and 2009.
Results: AIVs were detected from the oropharynx and cloaca in low amounts, with prevalences of 15% and 5%, in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Direct, partial sequencing of the hemagglutinin (HA) gene revealed that the H4 subtype was present. In 2009, antibodies to influenza A virus were detected in sera from 57 of 80 adult birds. In contrast, none of the three-week-old chicks (n = 18) tested seropositive. Hemagglutination inhibition (HI) assays demonstrated that the adult kittiwakes primarily had antibodies specific to the gull-associated H13 and H16 subtypes, with antibodies to H16 being most common.
Conclusions: These results support that the highly pelagic black-legged kittiwake is a reservoir of AIV. The serological findings suggest that H16 might be the main AIV subtype in the black-legged kittiwake. Further studies are needed to understand the ecology of AIV in the black-legged kittiwake and in gulls in general.