Solving the Mystery of Moose Brainworm Transmission

Monday, September 25, 2017

Scientists believe moose acquire an often deadly brainworm parasite from white-tailed deer when they eat snails and slugs carrying the parasite’s larvae. The problem is that previous collection efforts have found exceptionally low levels of brainworm larvae in snails and slugs. So how are moose getting infected?

Before leaping to a new theory of brainworm transmission, Dr. Tiffany Wolf, DVM, of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, wants to better understand the role of snails and slugs. She’s looking to crowd fund the financial support needed to make her research plan feasible.

“Earlier studies of brainworm have found fewer than one in 1,000 snails and slugs carried the larvae,” Wolf said. “Previous research of other parasites tells us that parasites can often alter their hosts’ behavior as a way to increase transmission. If the gastropods (snails and slugs) behave differently, previous attempts to collect them might have been flawed.”

Those earlier studies used moist cardboard to attract snails and slugs. Wolf and her colleagues plan to collect and screen moose and deer feces for the DNA of the brainworm parasite and gastropods. “It’s a technique that has been employed to understand the dietary components of various species. Since moose and deer have to consume the gastropods to become infected, this is an approach to help us identify which species of gastropods they are predominantly consuming.” She hopes the new sampling techniques will produce a better understanding of brainworm transmission.

“Without a better sampling technique, we won’t know if our data on brainworm in snails and slugs is reliable. We might be on the right track or the wrong track—we just don’t know," Wolf said.

Time is of the essence. Ongoing research on Minnesota moose has revealed infections of brainworm in moose from 25 to over 30 percent of study animals. The brainworm can be deadly in its own right, or make the moose vulnerable to predators or vehicle and train collisions.

Crowd funding is needed
Wolf’s proposed collection technique will produce lots of samples to look through in hopes of finding snails and slugs carrying the brainworm larvae. The problem is there isn’t a speedy test available. The price for experts at the University of Minnesota Genomics Center to develop and validate several new molecular tests to study brainworm larvae and its host gastropods is $6,000. A crowd funding site is available to raise the necessary funds, and is hosted by the University of Minnesota Foundation.

Creating accurate tests to identify brainworm-infected gastropods consumed by moose will help Wolf and her team secure additional research funds from more traditional sources. “Crowd funding gives those interested in supporting science or our moose population a direct opportunity to do so,” Wolf said.

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