Leprosy Threatens U.K. Red Squirrel Populations

Researchers have launched a new study to try to save the furry rodents

Red squirrel
Peter Trimming, via Wikimedia Commons

For years, the United Kingdom’s native red squirrel has struggled to survive in the face of habitat loss and disease. But until a few years ago, scientists didn’t realize that one of the infections common to the fluffy rodents was actually a form of leprosy. Now, a group of researchers are targeting the squirrels on a tiny island off England's southern coast in search of clues to help save the squirrels.

In order to learn how leprosy spreads among red squirrels, lead researcher Anna Meredith and her colleagues are studying a small group of red squirrels living in a nature preserve on Brownsea Island. The minute island is home to a colony of about 200 red squirrels, Steven Morris reports for The Guardian. The researchers will use humane traps to catch the red squirrels in order to take blood samples for study, before releasing them back into the wild.

“This research project represents a significant first step towards deepening our understanding of a complex disease in British red squirrels,” Angela Cott, the National Trust’s general manager on Brownsea Island, tells Morris.

Leprosy isn’t new to the U.K.’s red squirrels, but it was only recently that researchers identified the disease. In 2014, scientists studying red squirrels in Scotland realized that a disease that caused the iconic animals to lose their hair and experience swelling in their snouts, paws, and ears, the BBC reports.

In humans, leprosy, which is also known as Hansen’s Disease, can be disfiguring and debilitating. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 2 million people worldwide are living with the bacterial infection, which can cause both severe pain and numbness, skin lesions, and paralysis, to name a few symptoms. While the disease can spread from person to person, about 95 percent of adults seem immune to it. When it comes to squirrels, however, researchers are still unsure how the disease spreads.

Over the years, the British natives have faced serious competition from their North American cousins, the grey squirrel. Not only do the grey squirrels muscle their smaller British cousins out of territory and food, but they spread a serious disease called “squirrel pox” that has contributed to the steep decline of the red squirrel over the years, the BBC reports. According to the British Forestry Service, only about 140,000 red squirrels are still living throughout the British Isles.

By studying these squirrels, Meredith hopes that she and her team will learn how leprosy spreads among the squirrels and help scientists develop ways to help save the squirrels from the debilitating disease. In the meantime, authorities say that the risk of the reds spreading leprosy to humans is negligible and the preserve will remain open to the public.

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