Multidecade Mortality and a Homolog of Hepatitis C Virus in Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), the National Bird of the USA.Sci Rep 2019; 9(1):14953SR
The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) once experienced near-extinction but has since rebounded. For decades, bald eagles near the Wisconsin River, USA, have experienced a lethal syndrome with characteristic clinical and pathological features but unknown etiology. Here, we describe a novel hepacivirus-like virus (Flaviviridae: Hepacivirus) identified during an investigation of Wisconsin River eagle syndrome (WRES). Bald eagle hepacivirus (BeHV) belongs to a divergent clade of avian viruses that share features with members of the genera Hepacivirus and Pegivirus. BeHV infected 31.9% of eagles spanning 4,254 km of the coterminous USA, with negative strand viral RNA demonstrating active replication in liver tissues. Eagles from Wisconsin were approximately 10-fold more likely to be infected than eagles from elsewhere. Eagle mitochondrial DNA sequences were homogeneous and geographically unstructured, likely reflecting a recent population bottleneck, whereas BeHV envelope gene sequences showed strong population genetic substructure and isolation by distance, suggesting localized transmission. Cophylogenetic analyses showed no congruity between eagles and their viruses, supporting horizontal rather than vertical transmission. These results expand our knowledge of the Flaviviridae, reveal a striking pattern of decoupled host/virus coevolution on a continental scale, and highlight knowledge gaps about health and conservation in even the most iconic of wildlife species.