Scientists find respiratory pathogen in Alaska animals

KENAI — A respiratory pathogen that scientists previously believed to be restricted to sheep and goats has been detected in moose and caribou in Alaska.

Scientists have also recently identified Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, also known as Movi, in other animal species for the first time, including a bison in Montana, mule deer in New Mexico and white-tailed deer in the upper Midwest, the Peninsula Clarion reported last week.

The pneumonia-like disease may have contributed to the death of an emaciated caribou from the Fortymile herd near Fairbanks, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said.

Lung samples of the caribou found dead last month were sent to the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Pullman, Washington, where the disease was confirmed.

Four Alaska caribou herds have tested positive for the bacterium, but sickness has not been observed, said Bruce Dale, the director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation. Stored samples from the Fortymile caribou herd from 2013-14 have also tested positive for Movi, he said.

“It’s been around for a while — it’s not like we’re expecting this to be rampantly present,” Dale said. “There’s been lots of cases of pneumonia in our caribou studies — never associated with Movi before, but always associated with being in poor condition.”

For Movi to cause respiratory illness, other pathogens and factors need to line up, according to the department. Animals can carry Movi without becoming sick, but environmental stress factors like hunger and other illnesses can allow it to cause symptoms.

Scientists are not sure how Movi was transferred between species because it was initially thought to only affect goats and sheep, said Dr. Robert Gerlach, a state veterinarian.

“The pathogen might be present in the wild and natural environment,” Gerlach said.

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