WS Assists with a National Coyote Heartworm Research Project

Sunday, December 21, 2008
For The Patriot-News
Many Pennsylvania hunters want to rip the hearts out of as many coyotes as they can find, viewing the big predator as a competitor for the state's deer.

Kyle Van Why, a wildlife disease biologist with the USDA Wildlife Services office in Harrisburg, has a more scientific reason for wanting those hearts.

He's helping researchers at the American Museum of Natural History to gather a sampling of the canine tickers for their study of heartworms.

They are performing genetic testing on the heartworms, as well as heartworms from domestic dog hearts, to determine if the parasites are mutating a resistance to the medications given to dogs by their owners.

The coyotes, which do not receive such medications as dogs but are afflicted by the same heartworms, are a prime control group for the researchers.

The researchers also will be interested to see if there has been any movement of a resistant strain of heartworms from dogs into coyotes. Because their larvae are in the blood of infected animals, heartworms can be spread through mosquito bites.

Since Van Why issued a call to hunters and trappers to help in gathering the wild canine hearts a few weeks ago, he's also been asked to supply material to the Northeast DNA Lab at East Stroudsburg University to help build a DNA reference database on coyotes.

"So far we've gotten a few," he said, noting that most have been from animals gathered in western Pennsylvania by his agency's roadkill pick-up service. That service is being conducted as an enhanced surveillance component of an anti-rabies effort involving the aerial dropping of vaccine-laden baits throughout that region.

However, he's eager to obtain coyote hearts from all parts of the state and encourages hunters and trappers to help.

Anyone killing a coyote is asked to freeze the heart and contact Van Why at or 236-9451.

He will need to know when and where the coyote was killed, its gender, and whether it was an adult or juvenile. That latter characteristic can be determined from tooth eruption and wear.

The biologist said there is no danger in handling heartworm-infected hearts, although the standard precaution for handling any wild game of wearing rubber gloves is advisable.

He said he also is working with some of the organized coyote hunts coming in January and February to get the hearts from those animals.

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