Surprise! British Red Squirrels Carry Leprosy

Nov 13, 2016

By Ed Yong

In 2006, Anna Meredith came across a dead red squirrel with a weird skin disorder. Its ears lacked the characteristic red tufts, and were instead swollen, smooth, and shiny, like the cauliflower ears of boxers and rugby players. Its nose, muzzle, and eyelids were similarly swollen and hairless. Meredith, a professor of conservation medicine at the University of Edinburgh, had never seen anything like this before.

But she soon saw the same problems again—in six more squirrels over the next six years. She and her colleagues analyzed tissue samples from the dead animals. And to their surprise, they discovered that the squirrels had leprosy.

That’s astonishing for two reasons. First, even though leprosy still affects at least 385,000 people around the world (including a few hundred in the U.S.), the disease was eradicated from Britain several centuries ago. Second, squirrels aren’t meant to get leprosy.

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6 comments on “Surprise! British Red Squirrels Carry Leprosy

  • bonnie2 #1
    Nov 13, 2016 at 6:02 am

    U.S.armadillos are slowly migrating northward, possibly due to climate change. Strange they got inflicted with leprosy – Nature works in mysterious ways.

    I think the article suggests the infection is long-standing, and unrelated to the UK Red Squirrel population. The US Grey Squirrel is a different species to the Red.

    @OP link – Why did the squirrels become infected in the first place? They belong to a different order of mammals than either humans or nine-banded armadillos, and all three species are separated by around 100 million years of evolution. And yet the three of us, out of all the mammals in the world, are the only ones know to harbor M. leprae. And for that matter, why does the red squirrel get infected when the closely related grey squirrel doesn’t seem to?

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  • Armadillos are actually used for leprosy research. They’re prone to it as they have one of the lowest body temperatures of any mammal – ideal for leprosy. I think that’s also why leprosy manifrsets itself in the extremeties.

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  • Robert Firth #4
    Nov 17, 2016 at 2:41 am

    A wonderful opportunity to test the power of prayer.
    Pray for the squirrels and check whether their leprosy goes away!

    Well maybe? But if the Red Squirrels go extinct in their remaining habitats, as they have done elsewhere, this is likely to be claimed to be Him “working in mysterious ways”!! 🙂

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