Friday 15 December 2017

Red squirrels showing resistance to lethal pox virus

New hope for red squirrel conservationists has been found.
New hope for red squirrel conservationists has been found.
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

Researchers have found red squirrels which have built up a resistance to the pox virus – a disease which has blighted the endangered species.

Scientists from the University of Liverpool found that 10 per cent of squirrels at a National Trust reserve in Formby had pox antibodies in their blood.

An Irish zoologist has described the findings as “promising”, since the research may bode well for red squirrels here.  

The pox antibodies are chemical tags that allow the body to recognise and respond to an infection quickly.

Signs of immunity to the lethal pox virus have been seen before in Ireland - but only in a dead specimen.

Researchers hope to come across the same findings in live Irish red squirrels - showing they also are building up a resistance to it.

Dr Favel Naulty from University College Dublin said: “It’s promising. It’s a natural thing that happens with diseases. We’re in the hope that it’ll happen [in Ireland], that some squirrels will become resistant to it.”

“We know that squirrels in Ireland have encountered this disease but what we’re trying to find out is, how contagious are they?”

Both the Irish and British populations of red squirrels have been in decline since grey squirrels were introduced from North America by the Victorians.

The grey squirrel carries squirrel parapoxvirus, which will does not affect the health of the grey but will kill the red.

The UK researchers say the findings strongly suggest that the squirrels have encountered the pox virus previously and recovered from it.

As part of a recent project to reintroduce 15 red squirrels to Killiney Hill Park in Dublin, all grey squirrels were removed from the area.

Two of the female red squirrels in the park were lactating over the summer.

And Dr Naulty said one baby has already been spotted in the park. With the new progeny comes renewed hope that the conservation project will be a success.

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