The British Red Squirrels, a species which is already facing conservation problems, has been hit by a new threat in the form of leprosy as scientists make an unexpected and surprising find.
The red squirrels are a species originating in Scotland and which is already facing extinction as there are only 120,000 specimens remaining in the Scottish wild.
As the species numbers have been affected by habitat loss and the squirrel pox viruses carried by their American and British kin, the squirrels are now facing an even harsher enemy which is well known to humans.
Edinburgh University scientists in collaboration with Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne partners went to study the decreasing number of squirrels by collecting post-mortem samples.
The samples led to an unexpected find as they discovered that the animals carried the Mycobacterium lepromatosis, a bacteria which causes leprosy but has been since eradicated in humans in Britain.
Not all the squirrels found to carry the infection showed signs of the disease but those that did exhibited hair loss around and on their muzzles, ears, and feet and also swellings.
The symptoms are different to those exhibited by the human leprosy sufferers as they are affected by muscle weakness, skin problems and nerve damage.
As they noted the difference in symptoms, the scientists also assured and stressed the fact that the human risk of catching leprosy from the red squirrels is low.
According to the University of Edinburgh’s Royal School of Veterinary Studies, the discovery of leprosy in the British red squirrels should not scare people in relation to their health.
However, it should be considered a new threat to the conservation tactics as the scientists have started further studies based on the find.
They will be trying to determine how the disease was transmitted to the animals and why it started affecting them whilst also trying to stop its spreading amongst the Scottish icon.
A Swiss Federal Institute of Technology professor of the Global Health Institute, Stewart Cole, did, however, point out the unexpected and shocking nature of the discovery of the leprosy bacteria in the animals.
As the bacteria was eradicated in the United Kingdom and most of the world some centuries ago, the fact that it was just recently found but never before observed in the British Red squirrels is quite strange.
The aforementioned Cole stated in a Science journal report that the Scottish, Irish and English squirrels have been reportedly been carrying forms of the disease for some hundreds of years.
As scientists sought to correct the misconception that only people carry leprosy, the current find seems to further the 2011 study which targeted United States armadillos.
Even though there are no reported cases or even hints that the British Red squirrels might transmit the disease to humans, park rangers and visitors have been cautioned to not approach the infected specimens without proper protection measures.
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