PGC to begin study of mange in bears
We saw a trail camera photo a few months back showing a sad, freaky looking creature – skinny, mostly hairless, big ears, sunken and piercing eyes, with a leathery looking hide. It looked like the Gollum character in the Lord of the Rings.
At first, I had no idea what it was. Then I realized it had to be a bear, with mange. The reader who sent it had reached the same conclusion.
The last few years we have been hearing from readers who have seen strange looking, mangy bears, and this past hunting season we heard from several hunters who killed bears with varying levels of the disease. It seems like mange is becoming more common in Pennsylvania.
Game Commission bear biologist Mark Ternent confirmed our suspicion at the commission’s recent meeting and revealed the agency is going to do research on the phenomenon.
“We’ve actually begun a study this year looking more closely at mange and we have a graduate student from the University of Georgia who is going to be looking at techniques for determining the prevalence – whether it’s tissue, blood or fecal samples,” he said. “We will be analyzing whether we should use DNA or other lab tests that will work best here in Pennsylvania for detecting exposure to mange.”
Ternent told the game commissioners that it is hard to measure the prevalence of mange. The common way of detecting it is to take a tissue sample and then look for the presence of parasitic mites that cause the condition, he explained.
“But it depends where on the bear anatomically you get that sample whether you’re going to get mites in the sample,” Ternent said. “We have tried testing blood to determine exposure to mange, but we didn’t have very good success with that, either. And we also aren’t quite sure exactly what species of mites that we are dealing with. We assume they are Sarcoptes, but this student is going to be looking into that as well.”
Interestingly, it turns out that the mites that cause mange in bears and coyotes and the mites that cause scabies in humans are closely related.
Mange affects a wide range of wild mammals, especially canines like wolves and coyotes. The skin disease is caused by the mites – which are so small that they can’t be seen by the naked eye – burrowing into the skin or hair follicles.
Sarcoptic mange is highly contagious and is normally transferred from an infected animal directly to an uninfected animal. Mites feed, live, breed and lay their eggs in tunnels under the skin. Infestations cause hair loss, which makes infected animals vulnerable to winter weather.
In 2014, Ternent revealed, Game Commission officers euthanized 56 bears for mange. “And during hunting season we had several check stations that had bears brought in with mange,” Ternent said. “I know in my check station we had three, and up in Potter and Tioga counties, they had four.”
Mange seems to be spreading from our state, according to Ternent. It seems to be expanding north into New York and south into Maryland and West Virginia.
“In terms of trying to put a number on the prevalence of mange in our bears, we don’t quite have that nailed down yet,” he said. “But our best guess would be somewhere between 3 percent and 12 percent. It is certainly higher in local hotspots but the big picture is somewhere in that range.”
So if Ternent is right, three to 12 out of every 100 bears in Pennsylvania have some degree of mange. No wonder we have been seeing more of them.