U of M researcher works to prevent disease transmission in pumas

Friday, September 5, 2014

Minnesota may not seem like the obvious place for researching disease transmission and prevention among America’s large wild felids. But through collaborations with Colorado State University, the University of Tasmania, and state and federal agencies, the University of Minnesota will soon begin work studying six wild puma populations in California and Colorado, in addition to Florida’s endangered panther.

The work to study pathogens in puma populations is made possible through a new $2.14 million grant shared among the three institutions from the National Science Foundation.

Meggan Craft, Ph.D., a U of M Institute on the Environment resident fellow and an infectious disease ecologist with the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine, will lead the University of Minnesota research efforts.

Craft will take part in a five-year study, which aims to improve understanding of disease transmission and prevention by studying wild populations of pumas (Puma concolor, also known as mountain lions, cougars or panthers) in the U.S. The research is part of an effort to more effectively manage future outbreaks of diseases like feline leukemia that can threaten endangered puma populations. The project will use the genetics of several different viruses to trace pathogen spread through puma populations, which can determine which animals are more susceptible to infection. Craft will use mathematical models to help predict how diseases move through animal populations.

Through the grant, educational outreach on disease issues in conservation and ecology learning opportunities for students will be provided to help strengthen public understanding of the challenges big cats face. Human-animal disease transmission and the role of hunting will also be examined.

The project will provide insight on wildlife management approaches that have been used across the country. For example, when the endangered subspecies of Florida panther was nearing extinction in the Everglades in the mid-1990s, wildlife managers imported Texas pumas to breed with the Florida population. Managers hoped to rebuild the population. For the most part, it worked: Officials estimated last year that the Florida cat population is about five times larger than it was two decades ago. Other states have used different tactics to manage puma populations, for example, California has banned the hunting of pumas for decades. Alternatively, hunters on Colorado’s Western Slope are asked to avoid killing female lions in places with low population numbers.

“This research will aid in the development of more accurate modeling tools for disease management in wild animal populations,” said Craft. “If we can use these tools to predict how disease will travel in an endangered population, who’s to say we can’t design control strategies to prevent or, at least, slow down the spread?”