Tri-university wild puma study spans continents

A five-year study seeks to know the dynamics of viruses in wild animals.

by Kaylee Kruschke

Before the team of researchers could collaborate across continents, they started collecting vials of puma blood.

Now those zoology, ecology, genomics and veterinary diseases experts — who hail from three universities across two countries — are analyzing those blood samples to study how illnesses spread in wild animals.

The team of researchers from the University of Tasmania, Colorado State University and the University of Minnesota, as well as officials from state and federal departments, received a $2.14 million grant from the National Science Foundation  late last summer for the collaboration.

By the end of the five-year study, the group of five researchers hopes to better understand the interrelation between various puma diseases as well as predict and prevent their potential outbreaks, said Meggan Craft, assistant professor of veterinary population medicine at the University of Minnesota.

She said managers of wild puma populations in California, Colorado and Florida are wrapping up their work collecting blood samples from pumas, which are also called mountain lions, cougars or panthers.

That work began in the 1990s, though a few of the vials are more than 30 years old, said Scott Carver, a zoology assistant professor at the University of Tasmania in Australia.

The research group is also seeking to discover how conservation management affects the spread of disease in wild animals, Carver said, noting that no research has answered that question yet.

“One of the things I really like about the study is the discovery aspect,” Carver said, “because a lot of what we’re doing is quite novel. We don’t really know what the results are going to be.”

Though the findings will be drawn from puma data, the study’s results will be applied to other wild animal populations, said Sue VandeWoude, associate dean for research and professor of comparative medicine at CSU.

The group will home in on the relatedness of three diseases: feline immunodeficiency virus, feline foamy virus and feline leukemia virus, Craft said.

Because the first two diseases are fairly common, she said affected cats don’t show signs of sickness. Researchers will use models of those two viruses to predict occurrences of the third, more dangerous feline leukemia virus.

A cross-continental, cross-disciplinary approach

While one researcher sequences the viruses, another pair will study how natural and human-made landscapes affect disease transmission, before two more mathematically model the results.

In this way, specialists from across disciplines will lead each aspect of the study, Carver said.

“It’s kind of like a unique collaboration between people with really different skill sets and expertise,” Craft said.

VandeWoude, the project’s coordinator, will sequence the diseases with the help of CSU students, Craft said.

Meanwhile, Kevin Crooks, a professor of fish and wildlife conservation biology at CSU, will home in on how urbanization and human activity influence puma populations.

W. Chris Funk, a biology associate professor at CSU, will focus on the genetics of how the viruses are passed along and what role pumas’ natural landscape plays in that process.

VandeWoude said Crooks will also analyze GPS-generated information on the movement of pumas.

Craft, the only University of Minnesota researcher, said she and Carver will use the study’s data to design mathematical models that will simulate and virtually test how different conditions affect the transmission of puma diseases.

In the past, Craft has made similar models to track illnesses in African lion populations, and she said it’s her preferred approach for studying animal epidemiology.

“It’s ethical, it’s feasible and you can just mathematically test different … intervention strategies,” Craft said. “That’s why you’d rather do a mathematical model than introduce a virus into a population and then see what happens.”

Once the research is complete, the group plans to create a mobile game application that will teach users how cities, roads and illnesses can affect pumas, Craft said. The player will decide things like where to place mountains and rivers, or whether to infect or immunize the cats, she said.

Members of the study’s team started traveling on Monday from Tasmania and Minnesota to meet in Colorado to plan the project’s next steps, Carver said.

“This is really exciting,” he said. “This is really on the cutting edge of research in disease transmission.”