by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
While we continue to live in a world flush with pandemic, the animal kingdom also dwells under a constant state of attack. Numerous species such as bats, dogs, birds and deer all face an uncertain future due to emerging disease. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will catalog different diseases that threaten the ecosystem we hold dear.
The disease garnering much attention and funding these days is white nose syndrome decimating bat populations in the eastern US. This fungal disease, found first in upstate NY, affects the skin of the muzzle, ears and wings of hibernating bats. This disease damages tissue as well as awakes the bat from hibernation, causing it to burn through precious reserves. First found in 2006, some species such as the little brown, tri-colored, and northern bat have seen populations decrease by 90%. The endangered Indiana bat has seen populations crash by up to 50% in some areas. The commonly seen big brown bat seems to be holding a constant, while the endangered Virginia big-eared bat appears unaffected due to yeast that grows in its fur. An estimated 6 million bats have died from white-nose syndrome in the United States.
Another emerging disease that threatens the wildlife of Wintergreen is chronic wasting disease (CWD). CWD is an infectious disease that affects free ranging and captive animals in the deer family such as elk, moose, and whitetail deer. The disease comes from a family of disease that is also responsible for mad cow disease. It is caused by abnormal proteins called prions. It passes though these herd animals via saliva, feces, urine or water/soil contaminated by prions. This disease is always fatal and causes a spongy deterioration of the brains resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior and death. First identified in Colorado in 1960, it was found in West Virginia in 2005 and Virginia in 2009. It has now been found in five counties in Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont.
One of the most unique diseases to make its way to the shores of the commonwealth is West Nile encephalitis. This mosquito borne disease caused by the West Nile virus has greatly reduced bird populations in many parts of the United States. Birds such as the American crow, robins, bluebirds, titmouse and chickadees have all shown steep declines in particular areas. New York City was the site of the initial outbreak that killed many birds and zoo animals, and it continues to kill many birds each year. While this virus has earned its bad reputation, the West Nile encephalitis is not expected to threaten any species in Virginia.
A disease that affects “man’s best friend” is canine distemper virus (CDV). This contagious virus is transmitted via close contact via secretions or via inhaled respiratory droplets. This disease affects domestic dogs, wolves, coyotes and fox. It also attacks raccoons and mink and is the cause of the black-footed ferret population crash in the western portions of the US. Wildlife that contract the disease have a very high mortality rate but a vaccine given to domestic dogs offers long lasting immunity. Outbreaks in Virginia are centered around shelters and animal hospitals along with outbreaks among a variety of wildlife populations.
One of the scariest wildlife diseases that afflicts the animal kingdom is the avian influenza. This viral disease is caused by various strains of influenza that can be deemed low pathogenic or highly pathogenic. It is most commonly found in waterfowl and shorebirds, but on occasion it becomes deadly for domesticated species such as turkey and chickens. In 2002, the Shenandoah Valley saw an outbreak of avian flu that affected 197 farms and resulted in the culling of 4.7 million birds. Birds can carry a variety of viruses that do not cause signs of illness. A few avian influenza viruses are known to be transferable to humans.
The struggle is real in any pandemic, whether in humans or in animals. Thanks to scientific application and proper management, each species affected has a fighting chance to overcome the current affliction. Keep a good eye on your local wildlife populations and call The Nature Foundation with any questions about the health of your wildlife.