Red Squirrels Dying Of Leprosy In The United Kingdom Prompt New Study

A species of squirrel native to the United Kingdom has been found to be affected by an outbreak of leprosy, threatening an already declining population.

Almost everyone around the world is familiar with some species of squirrel. In Africa there’s a pygmy squirrel that only grows to about five inches, while in South Asia there’s a giant squirrel that can grow to roughly three feet. Arguably, however, the two most commonly known squirrel species’ in the world are the American gray squirrel and the European red squirrel. The latter of the two is in deep trouble.

The red squirrel population in the United Kingdom has been declining for years. The species is dealing with a loss of habitat and a disease brought by the American gray squirrel during their introduction into Europe. “Squirrel Pox” is only carried by the gray squirrels, but it has proven fatal to the red squirrel population.

According to the BBC, it is thought that there are only approximately 140,000 red squirrels left in the United Kingdom. What’s left of the red squirrels are still competing with their gray squirrel cousins, but the species is also facing a new threat.

In 2014, the first cases of leprosy were found in the red squirrel population, but scientists were unaware of the scale of the outbreak until recently. They have found red squirrels dying from complications associated with the leprosy disease all over the United Kingdom. In a species that’s already dying off, the new threat is particularly worrisome.

“We don’t know why it’s only red squirrels,” Anna Meredith, from the University of Edinburgh, told USA Today. “We haven’t found it in any other species of squirrel yet. And we don’t really know how badly it’s affecting them and what impact it’s having on the population.”

Due to the variables and amount of unknown data associated with the squirrel leprosy outbreak, Meredith and her team have started a new research project off the south coast of England on Brownsea Island.

The group of scientists intend to monitor the red squirrel population on the island in order to understand why they are being affected by leprosy, how the leprosy is spreading, and whether or not the devastation to the species will be reversible.

“We are using an island because it creates a really nice environment to run a study. It’s contained and we know there’s a good population of around 200 squirrels,” she said to USA Today. “But it’s also very important because it’s about the only place in England where red squirrels are left.”

“This research project represents a significant first step towards deepening our understanding of a complex disease in British red squirrels. Many thousands of people visit Brownsea every year, enjoying the island’s wonderful wildlife. Brownsea will remain open whilst the research project takes place,” Angela Cott, General Manager for National Trust on Brownsea Island, told the Guardian.

Scientists believe the chance of the squirrel population transmitting leprosy to humans is negligible, so they intend to keep the island open for visitors.

According to the CDC, leprosy is now very rare among humans in general.

The leprosy bacteria is primarily spread through contact with an infected person’s mucous. Normally, that would make a disease highly contagious, however leprosy is a different story.

Leprosy is very treatable and once an infected person begins treatment, they are no longer capable of spreading the disease. Not only that, but the CDC wrote that “evidence shows that 95 percent of all adults are naturally unable to get the disease, even if they’re exposed to the bacteria that causes it.”

With any luck, scientists will be able to save the red squirrel from the devastating effects of leprosy, but there is little chance that the outbreak will spread to humans at this time. Never-the-less, do not touch wild animals and practice good hygiene.

[ Red Squirrel – Photo by Piotr Krzeslak/Shutterstock ]