New Mexico Department of Game & Fish wildlife specialist Kerry Mower hit the nail on the head in early Sept. after investigating the mysterious death of about 100 elk on a northeast New Mexico ranch. Toxicologists have determined Anabaena, a type of blue-green algae that can produce a deadly but short-lived neurotoxin, was the silent culprit responsible for the incident.

"We are probably looking for some type of environmental condition of unknown type or variety," Mower said Sept. 4 after spending days on the ranch searching for clues.

The neurotoxin, anatoxin-a, was found in a water sample taken from a fiberglass livestock tank not far from where the elk were found spread across a small meadow in a remote area of the ranch.

Investigators say water samples taken from three fiberglass tanks in the area shortly after the kill off all tested positive for trace amounts of the neurotoxin and are now considered to be the cause of death.

Earthen water tanks in the area were also tested but no traces of neurotoxin could be found in those samples.


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Investigators say elk have a habit of movement, finding water and then resting. Mower believes that may have been what happened on the day of the kill off. Moving through a natural corridor on the land where the tanks are located, the herd probably stopped at one or more of the tanks for water and proceeded to a resting area where they collapsed. Investigators noted signs of physical struggle on the ground where the animals were found.

Mower said investigators considered several suspected causes of death after the initial investigation was complete.

"We looked at such things as EHD (Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease), which is not uncommon. We also looked at the possibility of pathogens such as anthrax, natural causes such as lightning, and chemical toxins from nearby industrial applications," Mower explained. In spite of helicopter flyovers of the area, no other animals were found.