Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Carrion, my wayward son: Vulture paper from Spanish researcher suspected of misconduct retracted

with 3 comments

Back in March, we wrote about the doubts that had emerged in Spain about the work of a prominent local veterinary scientist, Jesús Ángel Lemus, suspected of being a data fabricator and inventor of co-authors (one in particular).

We hadn’t heard anything since about Lemus — who specialized in the effects of environmental toxins on birds — until now.

The Proceedings of the Royal Society B has retracted a 2009 paper by Lemus and a (legitimate) c0-author, Guillermo Blanco, of the National Museum of Natural History, and issued an expression of concern about another article on which both men appeared.

The retracted paper, “Cellular and humoral immunodepression in vultures feeding upon medicated livestock carrion,” has been cited seven times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, and purported to find that:

Veterinary pharmaceuticals contained in dead livestock may be ingested by avian scavengers and negatively affect their health and consequently their population dynamics and conservation. We evaluated the potential role of antibiotics as immunodepressors using multiple parameters measuring the condition of the cellular and humoral immune system in griffon (Gyps fulvus), cinereous (Aegypius monachus) and Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus). We confirmed the presence of circulating antimicrobial residues, especially quinolones, in nestlings of the three vulture species breeding in central Spain. Individuals ingesting antibiotics showed clearly depressed cellular and humoral immune systems compared with nestlings from the control areas, which did not ingest antibiotics. Within central Spain, we found that individuals with circulating antibiotics showed depressed cellular (especially CD4+and CD8+T-lymphocyte subsets) and humoral (especially acellular APV complement and IL8-like) immune systems compared with nestlings without circulating antibiotics. This suggests that ingestion of antibiotics together with food may depress the immune system of developing nestlings, temporarily reducing their resistance to opportunistic pathogens, which require experimental confirmation. Medicated livestock carrion should be considered inadequate food for vultures due to their detrimental consequences on health derived from the ingestion and potential effects of the veterinary drugs contained in them and for this reason rejected as a management tool in conservation programmes.

But as the notice, signed by Blanco, states:

After careful examination, and as confirmed by the Ethics Committee of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) on 25 July 2012, there is a need to question the validity of the laboratory analyses conducted by Dr J. A. Lemus in the above paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. I am unable to repeat these analyses with the same samples given the ephemeral nature of the material used (fresh blood and plasma). Therefore, I wish to retract this published manuscript.

In other words, as the boys from Kansas once crooned: “Carrion, my wayward son.”

The expression of concern also involves a paper on bird toxins, “An island paradigm on the mainland: host population fragmentation impairs the community of avian pathogens,” which appeared in 2011 in the journal and has been cited three times. Its abstract states:

Emergent infectious diseases represent a major threat for biodiversity in fragmented habitat networks, but their dynamics in host metapopulations remain largely unexplored. We studied a large community of pathogens (including 26 haematozoans, bacteria and viruses as determined through polymerase chain reaction assays) in a highly fragmented mainland bird metapopulation. Contrary to recent studies, which have established that the prevalence of pathogens increase with habitat fragmentation owing to crowding and habitat-edge effects, the analysed pathogen parameters were neither dependent on host densities nor related to the spatial structure of the metapopulation. We provide, to our knowledge, the first empirical evidence for a positive effect of host population size on pathogen prevalence, richness and diversity. These new insights into the interplay between habitat fragmentation and pathogens reveal properties of a host–pathogen system resembling island environments, suggesting that severe habitat loss and fragmentation could lower pathogen pressure in small populations.

But Lemus’ co-authors are backing away from their results (we wish the journal wouldn’t be keeping this notice behind a paywall):

Subsequent to publication of “An island paradigm on the mainland: host population fragmentation impairs the community of avian pathogens, Proc. R. Soc. B 278, 2668–2676 (7 September 2011; published online January 26 2011, doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.1227 <> )”, the journal received an expression of concern from the authors (Matthias Vögeli, David Serrano, Guillermo Blanco and José L. Tella) about the validity of some of the data based on laboratory analyses carried out by Jesús A. Lemus. While awaiting the outcome of further investigations, the Editor-in-Chief and the authors wish to notify readers of our concerns regarding this article.

Tom Langen, a behavior ecologist at Clarkson University, said the vulture paper in particular might have had a damaging effect on the efforts of vulture conservationists to preserve the birds:

This is kind of big deal for conservation biology, because if this paper by Lemus (and others by him) were correct, it implies that vultures should not be provided carcasses from dead domestic animals that were medically treated (before death) with commonly-used antimicrobials. Carcass supplementation is a commonly used management practice to aid vulture populations in agricultural landscapes. Eliminating this source of food (justified based on the results of this paper and others by the author) would likely reduce vulture populations (including species of significant conservation concern) because of reduced availability of carrion. It might also result in agricultural policies mandating that carcasses be disposed of in ways that prevent vultures from accessing them.

This retracted research should not be (but unfortunately probably will be) confused with the superb research by other scientists demonstrating that the dramatic decline of vulture populations on the Indian subcontinent (and likely elsewhere) is due to diclofenac (an anti-inflammatory drug) used on livestock (see and related papers). The vulture – diclofenac story is really a modern classic in environmental toxicology.

Hat tip: Bob O’Hara

  • chirality September 10, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    The science fraud blog has an entry on Lemus’ Science paper.
    The authors (sans Lemus) provide a legit explanation in my opinion, although it would be really unfortunate if it turned out that Lemus was the guy who had taken the pictures of those nests…

  • omnologos September 10, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    The reference to Kansas is truly amazing. Good stuff Ivan.

  • Toby White September 11, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    The Vögeli et al. paper and expression of concern don’t seem to be behind a paywall currently.

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