Parasite transmitted by ticks found in Canada lynx

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

CONCORD, N.H. — The Canada lynx, listed as a threatened species by the federal government, may have one more thing to worry about.

University of New Hampshire scientists on Monday announced they have discovered a previously undiagnosed parasite transmitted by ticks as well as a virus in the medium-sized cat known for its long ears. The virus is similar to the Epstein-Barr virus that causes mononucleosis in humans and is related to a virus that infects domestic cats.

The New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory uncovered the findings during a recent research study. Two senior veterinary pathologists led the project and were expected to present their results Tuesday at the 74th annual Northeast Fish and Wildlife Conference in Burlington, Vt.

“Even though the impact on the well-being of the cats is unclear, it’s certainly a concern and I’m glad that New Hampshire scientists paid attention to this,” said D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute in Maine. He noted a novel virus or parasite would not be worrisome but is for an animal already facing multiple threats.

The snow-loving feline, found from Alaska across Canada and into the northernmost part of the United States, has been listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2000, largely due to habitat destruction. The Canada lynx is still under federal protection, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials announced in January they are considering taking the elusive cat off of the endangered species list. The announcement was met with resistance from wildlife conservation groups.

Maine has 500 to more than 1,000 Canada lynx, and is the only state in the Northeast with a resident breeding population of lynx. Recently, the mid-sized carnivore has been observed in New Hampshire and Vermont, suggesting an expansion of their current habitat range.

As part of their study, scientists performed post-mortem examinations on 38 lynx from Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. They found a lungworm infection and inflammation in many of them, with some cases of severe inflammation associated with the parasites. The most common cause of death was being hit by a car.

Researchers who took part in the study said the discovery will help biologists monitor the populations in the future, and will be used to assess their population health when it comes to emergent diseases.

“Right now, it’s not a cause for worry because we don’t know enough about it,” said David Needle, a senior veterinary pathologist with the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

It remains unclear how the lynx became infected with the parasite, but the pathologists said climate change could be allowing tick populations to move further north and into the ranges of the cat. The main tick that transmits the parasite is a tick that is traditionally found in the South, where it is warmer, Brian Stevens, a senior veterinary pathologist and assistant clinical professor at the university.

Schubert agreed that climate change could be a factor when considering the study’s implications.

“The parasites and ticks wouldn’t have been able to survive in these colder temperatures 10 years ago, and it opened the door to an invasion by foreign vectors of disease,” he said.