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December 3, 2020 – Climate change. Habitat destruction. Pollution. Poaching. The planet’s wildlife species are coming under ever-increasing threats due to many factors. But often overlooked are threats to wildlife from diseases, both old and new.

Disease threats can include known illnesses that affect new species, such as canine distemper in Amur tigers. Or they can represent new diseases that spread quickly through a vulnerable population, such as the emergence of devil facial tumor disease in Tasmanian devils. Loss through disease can decimate a population in a short amount of time and, if a species is already threatened, loss to disease can compound an already desperate situation.

Morris Animal Foundation has long recognized the danger posed by disease on wildlife. Our latest efforts to save eastern gorillas, sea turtles and moose are just a few examples that showcase our commitment to saving wild animals from health threats around the world.

Eastern Gorillas

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there currently are only 2,600 mature eastern gorillas left in the wild. Like most gorillas, this critically endangered species faces a myriad of human pressures, including habitat loss, poaching, disease and civil unrest. These and other factors add stress that contributes to disease, reproductive failure and early death, adding to their risk for extinction. But how much stress is too much?

Researchers we are funding at the Smithsonian Institution, who are working with the Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda, will see if allostatic load can predict an increased risk of disease and early mortality in the gorillas. Allostatic load is a measurement of accumulated wear and tear on the body, associated with repeated and chronic stressors over time. The team’s findings not only could help identify gorillas at higher risk of disease and other health issues, but also help develop strategies to reduce stressors for the species as a whole.

Sea turtles

Sea turtles feel stress, too. Six of their seven species are listed on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. And, in the past 20 years, at least 11,000 were rescued and hospitalized in the United States alone from issues like boat strikes, algae blooms, pollution, climate-related factors and more. Unfortunately, we don’t know as much as we would like to always give them the best recovery.

To improve care for these patients, researchers we are funding at the New England Aquarium will investigate new testing methods to assess concentrations of several hormones in rescued Kemp’s ridley and leatherback sea turtles. This includes the hormone aldosterone, which regulates salt and water in the body and affects blood pressure, but has not been studied in sea turtles. The team also will compare hormone changes between healthy turtles and injured or ill turtles to learn more about how these hormones relate to stress response and health status of individual patients.


North American moose populations have declined dramatically over the past couple decades. It’s not exactly clear why, but in addition to threats such as predators and habitat loss, experts believe ticks may be partly to blame. Little is known about how heavy tick loads impact wildlife.

Researchers we are funding at the University of Maine, Orono, are evaluating the combined effects of winter ticks and other parasitic infections on moose survival in Maine. With this information, they plan to generate a model to predict ongoing parasite impact on moose populations. The team also will gauge potential risk factors of tick load, including sex, age, region, body weight, nutrition, stress, immune system function and genetics. This ideally will help build effective management strategies to strengthen and build healthy moose populations across the continent.

Morris Animal Foundation has a rich history of stepping in when disease threatens animals, whether it’s the dog on your couch or a gorilla in an African forest. Endangered species represent an especially vulnerable population needing our help. Learn more about our work with wildlife and what you can do to help save all animal species. You can also make a gift to advance this important work. And now through December 31, our Board of Trustees is matching all donations up to $200,000, doubling your impact! Thank you.