Based on the latest study, it looks like the cute British red squirrels carry a contagious disease called leprosy, which killed many people in the medieval times. Nowadays, leprosy can be found only in some parts of Africa and Asia, so scientists became concerned when they found a strain in red squirrels.
This species is currently endangered, so biologists are doing their best to protect and preserve it. A team of experts conducted a study in which they analyzed DNA tests from over one hundred animals to establish why the population of the British red squirrels has plummeted over the past few years.
DNA Results of the Red Squirrels
It is worth mentioning that 25 of the animals involved in the study were roadkill specimens which scientists collected on Brownsea Island. After analyzing their DNA, the team discovered that all squirrels had been infected with leprosy, known as Mycobacterium leprae.
No human case of leprosy has been recorded over the past 500 years. Even so, the strain found in the dead British red squirrels is very much alike the strain collected from a skeleton buried 730 years ago in Winchester.
Scientists collected nine other specimens in Scotland and Ireland and established that all of them were carrying Mycobacterium lepromatosis, a deadly strain which was discovered eight years ago in animals, although experts thought that it could only infect humans in the Caribbean and Mexico.
Thanks to the fact that these animals are very shy, they hardly let anyone touch them, meaning that humans have a low risk of contracting the bacteria, according to Dr. Stewart T. Cole, Global Health Institute Director at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne, in Switzerland.
Dr. Cole, who is also one of the study authors, continues by saying that Americans contracted leprosy because they hunted armadillos or kept them as pets, so park rangers should wear gloves when they handle red squirrels to prevent any infection.
Red squirrels were hunted in the past by Europeans because their fur and meat were valuable on the market, but that was also why European hunters got infected.
Researchers added that not all red squirrels experienced the leprosy symptoms because just some of them suffered hair loss and large lumps. There are only 140,000 remaining red squirrels in the U.K., as their population declined due to a wide variety of causes, besides leprosy.