Life-Threatening Foot Disease Found in Endangered Huemul Deer in Chile

A huemul deer in Chilean Patagonia. (Alejandro Vila/Wildlife Conservation Society)
A huemul deer in Chilean Patagonia. (Alejandro Vila/Wildlife Conservation Society)

Scientists report the first cases of foot disease for endangered huemul deer in Chilean Patagonia in a study led by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of California, Davis’ One Health Institute, with partnering institutions in Chile and the United States. 

In the study, published April 17 in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers found foot lesions in 24 huemul deer in Chile’s Bernardo O’Higgins National Park between 2005 and 2010. The park remains one of the few strongholds for the species, which lives in the rugged mountainous terrain of southern Argentina and Chile. 

The foot disease causes severe pain, swelling, partial or complete loss of the hoof and in many cases, death. Affected animals become unable to move and forage, leaving them susceptible to starvation and predation. 

Researchers identified parapoxvirus as the likely cause of the disease. About 40 percent of the 24 affected deer died, suggesting the virus could pose a considerable conservation threat to the already vulnerable species.

“We knew that deer were getting sick and dying from this disease for many years, but we didn’t know what was causing it,” said corresponding author Marcela Uhart, a wildlife veterinarian with the UC Davis One Health Institute and director of the Latin America Program within UC Davis’ Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center. “We’re really excited that we found a potential cause for this disease. Now we need to learn from it so we can be better prepared to help this species.”  

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