Updated Oct. 19, 2023– Climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, poaching – these factors pose ever-increasing threats to the planet’s wildlife species. Yet, one often overlooked menace is diseases, both old and new.
Disease threats range from known illnesses affecting new species, such as canine distemper in Amur tigers, to emerging diseases that rapidly spread through vulnerable populations, such as the transmissible cancer known as devil facial tumor disease in Tasmanian devils. Disease-induced losses can decimate a population swiftly. When a species is already endangered, such losses can exacerbate an already dire situation.
Morris Animal Foundation has long recognized the peril that diseases pose to global wildlife populations. While our efforts contribute to saving large iconic species like mountain gorillas, elephants and rhinoceros, we are equally dedicated to safeguarding smaller, and often less charismatic, species in desperate need of our support to survive.
Here are a few examples showcasing our commitment to saving overlooked and endangered animals from health threats worldwide.
Little Brown Bat
Millions of North American bats have died from white-nose syndrome, a fatal fungal disease affecting hibernating bats. The little brown bat is among the hardest-hit species, with less than 10% of its once-thriving population surviving the outbreak. Morris Animal Foundation has funded numerous studies to rescue the little brown bat and other hibernating bat species.
Initially discovered in cave-dwelling bats in 2006, the Foundation supported early research into the disease’s spread to inform mitigation efforts. As the disease spread across North America, efforts shifted toward understanding the factors determining a bat’s ability to survive and recover from the WNS epidemic.
Today, our funded researchers are delving deeper into how WNS invades the bat’s skin, causing fatal infections. They also are developing laboratory cell-culture models to test promising drugs that could hinder the infectious agent’s invasion into the bat’s skin cells. If successful, this work will yield valuable insights for devising new preventive strategies, not only for the little brown bat, but for other species devastated by WNS.
About half of the bats in the United States are cave-dwelling, and more than 90% of them, including the little brown bat, are insectivores. Despite their size, these flying mammals are crucial in pest and disease control. A single little brown bat can eat up to 1,200 insects in an hour. They aid in keeping diseases such as West Nile virus, which are spread by mosquitoes, in check. This underscores the urgency in preserving them.
Black abalone, endangered marine snails found in tidepools off the coasts of California and Baja California, Mexico, once numbered in the millions. However, a withering disease nearly wiped them out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Intensive conservation efforts are underway to aid in the species’ recovery.
Foundation-funded researchers are generating fundamental genomic information to gain deeper insights into the diversity and structure of surviving populations, a critical step in saving these plant-eating marine snails. Understanding the intricate adaptive patterns of surviving black abalone, including genetic adaptations that enable them to withstand disease outbreaks, will significantly support endeavors. This newfound knowledge is anticipated to guide captive breeding efforts, as methods used for abalone species have proven less effective for black abalone, making their reproduction in captivity exceptionally challenging.
Furthermore, the findings will guide reintroducing the black abalone to areas where they were once abundant, specifically in the kelp forests spanning from Mexico to Northern California. Black abalone plays an essential role in maintaining healthy marine ecosystems. They serve as a food source for other animals and contribute to algae control in the tidepools they inhabit.
The black-footed ferret, the only ferret species native to North America, is a flagship species of the prairie grasslands. Prairie dogs are vital to their survival, providing shelter and serving as their preferred food source. Initially believed to be extinct, a small group of black-footed ferrets was discovered in Wyoming in the early 1980s. Through targeted conservation efforts, the population has increased to about 300 black-footed ferrets, a significant improvement but a far cry from the million thought to live just a century ago.
A looming threat to their recovery is sylvatic plague, which is lethal to both ferrets and the prairie dogs essential for their survival. Foundation-funded studies have made strides in developing vaccine-bait strategies to combat the epidemic.
Today, our funded researchers are exploring an additional tool to enhance the black-footed ferret’s resilience to sylvatic plague – a genetic rescue solution. Given their limited genetic diversity, black-footed ferrets are highly susceptible to disease outbreaks, including sylvatic plague, which can rapidly decimate an entire population, jeopardizing recovery and conservation efforts.
Researchers are examining if innovative gene-editing techniques conducted under controlled laboratory conditions can bolster resilience in the species. If successful, the findings will guide vaccine development aimed at enhancing and/or restoring adaptive immunity to sylvatic plague in black-footed ferrets. This study can potentially revolutionize disease management and may also help other species.
Frogs and other amphibians are teetering on the brink of extinction due to a deadly fungal disease known as chytridiomycosis or chytrid. Scientists suspect that the fungus spreads through both direct contact with affected frogs and exposure to contaminated water sources. This fungus has been implicated in the decline of about 500 amphibian species, further contributing to the growing list of threatened and endangered species. In recent decades, more than 90 known frog species have become extinct due to the escalating spread of the disease.
The Foundation has funded multiple studies to aid researchers in comprehending the spread of fungus and its infection of frogs and related species. One group is actively developing a probiotic antifungal treatment that introduces protective skin bacteria, aiding the fight against the fungus. While labor-intensive, researchers have reported positive results in treating tadpoles and toads in areas infected with chytrid fungus.
In another ongoing study, researchers are working to develop an easy-to-use, rapid-detection field test for chytrid. Current mitigation strategies rely on swiftly detecting small quantities of the agent responsible for chytrid. However, standard genetic tests can take hours to days to yield results. To address this, researchers will use new CRISPR technologies to develop a test to quickly detect Bd from water and amphibian skin, providing a much-needed tool for expeditious field detection and research. The findings will help enhance disease monitoring for breeding and reintroduction efforts and assess disease risk stemming from the global pet trade.
Frogs are vital in maintaining balanced ecosystems, serving as a crucial food source for snakes, birds, fish and other wildlife. They also contribute to our well-being, consuming millions of insects that can harm crops and spread diseases.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Regardless of size, preserving one species within an ecosystem positively impacts other species, including humans coexisting within the same habitat. This helps maintain the delicate balance of nature.
Morris Animal Foundation has a rich history of stepping in when disease threatens the animals we love, whether it’s the dog on your couch or a small bat or frog living outside your doorstep. Endangered species represent especially dire populations in need of our support.