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Mountain Lions Show Prevalence Of Plague In Grand Teton Area

National Park Service

Researchers recently discovered that plague is much more prevalent in the Grand Teton area than previously thought. 

While plague is common throughout the West, the Grand Teton area may now be considered a hot spot for the disease. That's according to Dr. Mark Elbroch, the Puma Program Director with Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization responsible for the study.

"The Yellowstone area, based on ecological variables like dryness and vegetation type in animal communities and things like that, was not identified as a place where you were likely to contract plague or that plague is probably at high prevalence. But our data suggests that, in fact, Yellowstone might have much more plague than previously thought," said Elbroch.

Smaller animals like prairie dogs and ground squirrels are typically used to monitor the disease, but their low populations and the rough terrain in the region made researchers turn to other animals, like mountain lions. By using blood samples and location data, scientists came to the conclusion that the area's mountain lions are making up a big portion of plague carriers.

Very little is known about Yersinia Pestis, the bacteria responsible for plague. Scientists do know that it can persist in the soil without an animal host for a long period of time. But even given the persistence of the bacteria, it's highly unlikely that a person will contract plague.

"We live with it all around us. It's in the soil. And, you know, this was something that someone like myself was sort of amazed to hear that I live with plague all the time. And that I probably interact with plague all the time. But contracting plague is something very different than interacting with plague," Dr. Elbroch said.

Researchers also discovered that mountain lions that come into contact with plague build antibody defenses against it. But they can lose those antibodies over time and become carriers of the disease once again.

There's still a lot of research to be done on plague and its prevalence in large predators like mountain lions, but one thing Dr. Elbroch made clear was that, unless they're regularly handling wildlife, most people are unlikely to contract plague.

"Don't be afraid of it, but it's just be aware of it. And in today's times of crazy coronavirus, people are no doubt petrified about diseases and catching things, for good reason. But a person has about zero percent chance of catching the plague from a mountain line," Dr. Elbroch said.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at iengel@uwyo.edu.

Ivy started as a science news intern in the summer of 2019 and has been hooked on broadcast ever since. Her internship was supported by the Wyoming EPSCoR Summer Science Journalism Internship program. In the spring of 2020, she virtually graduated from the University of Wyoming with a B.S. in biology with minors in journalism and business. When she’s not writing for WPR, she enjoys baking, reading, playing with her dog, and caring for her many plants.
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