New Climate Regime Lethal to African Lions

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Public release date: 2-Jul-2008

Contact: Dr. Karen Terio
kterio@illinois.edu
708-216-6183

Instances of mass die-offs in wild lions
precipitated by extreme climate change

An international research team has published the first clear example
of how climate extremes can create conditions in which diseases that
are normally tolerated singly may converge and bring about mass
die-offs in wildlife.

In a report issued June 25 by PLoS ONE, an online peer-reviewed
research journal, researchers examined outbreaks of canine distemper
virus (CDV) in 1994 and 2001 that resulted in unusually high
mortality in Serengeti lions. CDV cycles periodically within the
Serengeti ecosystem, and epidemics have occurred without effects on
lion populations.

The study, led by scientists at the University of California, Davis,
the University of Illinois, and the University of Minnesota, showed
that both of the deadly CDV outbreaks were preceded by extreme
drought conditions, which led to debilitated populations of Cape
buffalo, the lion’s prey. After the resumption of rains the buffalo
suffered heavy tick infestations, resulting in high levels of a
tick-borne blood parasite in the lion population, which in
combination with CDV infection led to mass die-offs.

This study suggests that extreme climatic conditions, such as the
more frequent droughts and floods expected with global warming, are
capable of altering normal host-pathogen relationships and bringing
about a “perfect storm” of multiple infectious outbreaks, potentially
triggering epidemics with catastrophic mortality.

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Dr. Linda Munson is a professor of veterinary pathology at the
University of California, School of Veterinary Medicine in Davis,
California.

Dr. Karen Terio is on faculty at the Chicago-based Zoological
Pathology Program, a division of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory
at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in
Urbana.

Dr. Craig Packer is Distinguished McKnight University Professor at
the University of Minnesota and the head of the Serengeti Lion
Project.

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