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When Fur and Feather Meet

When Fur and Feather Meet

Striped skunks and cottontail rabbits are common visitors to farms across the country. They also frequent riparian areas and wetlands that are home to many waterfowl species. Normally, this wouldn’t be much cause for concern. Yet, recently National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC) scientists have discovered that skunks and cottontails can become infected with and shed some avian influenza viruses—making them potential carriers of the viruses to areas near commercial and backyard poultry farms.

“When wildlife and poultry interact and both can carry and spread a potentially damaging agricultural pathogen, it’s cause for concern,” notes NWRC research wildlife biologist Jeff Root.

Root is one of several NWRC researchers studying the role wild mammals may play in the spread of avian influenza viruses. In experiments with captive striped skunks, cottontail rabbits, and mallards, Root discovered that skunks and cottontails indirectly transmitted low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) A virus to mallards.

First, striped skunks and cottontail rabbits were inoculated with LPAI. Then, inoculated skunks and uninoculated mallards were housed in “mirrored” pens outfitted with the same items. After several days, the animals switched pens exposing the mallards to potentially LPAI contaminated items in the skunk pens. In a similar experiment, inoculated cottontails were co-housed with uninoculated mallards to determine if the mallards could become infected with LPAI through shared water and food sources. One of the four mallards exposed to the skunk pens and one of the five mallards exposed to the cottontails became infected.

 “Several findings from the experiments are important,” adds Root. “First, skunks and cottontails can acquire and shed LPAI virus. Second, skunk and cottontail behavior impacts where the virus is shed. And third, since mallards must ingest enough virus to become infected, virus transmission is strongly tied to where and when skunks and cottontails shed the virus and whether mallards frequent that space.”

 “We know it is possible for some mammals to spread the LPAI virus, now we need to figure out how likely such spread is occurring in the wild,” concludes Root.

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