Infectious Diseases in Yellowstone’s Canid Community

Almberg, E.S., Cross, P.C., Mech, L.D., Smith, D.W., Sheldon, J.W. and Crabtree, R.L.

Yellowstone Science, vol.19 issue 2

2011

Each summer Yellowstone Wolf Project staff visit den sites to monitor the success of wolf reproduction and pup rearing behavior. For the purposes of wolf monitoring, Yellowstone National Park (YNP) is divided into two study areas, the northern range and the interior, each distinguished by their ecological and physiographical differences. The 1,000 square kilometer northern range, characterized by lower elevations (1,500–2,200 m), serves as prime winter habitat for ungulates and supports a higher density of wolves than the interior (20–99 wolves/1,000 km2 versus 2–11 wolves/1,000 km2). The interior of the park encompasses 7,991 square kilometers, is higher in elevation, receives higher annual snowfall, and generally supports lower densities of wolves and ungulates. During the Yellowstone Wolf Project’s 2005 observations on the northern range, researchers noticed that some wolf pups were disappearing and those that remained were unusually listless. The Slough Creek pups, at first numbering 18, dwindled to three survivors. Similar findings were mirrored at other den sites across the northern range. When annual den surveys were conducted in late July, all that remained were scattered piles of bones and fur. Coyotes suffered similar setbacks in 2005, with many of the survivors exhibiting neurological shakes and tremors. The park’s canids had been affected by something, but what? Prompted by what seemed to be a disease outbreak, the Yellowstone Wolf Project, the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center (YERC), and the University of Minnesota decided to take several collaborative approaches toward improving our understanding of the presence and role of infectious disease in Yellowstone’s canid community. Several serological studies have been conducted in the past among the park’s coyotes (Gese et al. 1997) and cougars (Biek 2006), providing a helpful foundation on which to build and compare. A serological survey was conducted, using serum samples collected during routine wolf and coyote captures over a period of 18 years (Almberg et al. 2009). Simulation models were used to explore the dynamics of canine distemper virus (Almberg et al. 2010)—one of the more prominent pathogens in terms of its effects on its hosts—and several long-term pathogen surveillance projects were initiated which are intended to someday provide a foundation for more advanced genetic-based analyses of pathogen dynamics. Since these initial efforts, the group has also expanded the research to include a study of sarcoptic mange, which began affecting wolves and coyotes in YNP in 2006 and 2007.

Patrick Cross2011