Friday, August 8, 2008

PS 76-59: White-tailed deer carcass decomposition and risk of chronic wasting disease exposure to scavenger communities in Wisconsin

Chris S. Jennelle, Michael D. Samuel, Cherrie A. Nolden, and Elizabeth A. Berkley. University of Wisconsin


Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is an infectious transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) afflicting members of the family Cervidae, and causes neurodegeneration and ultimately death. While there have been no reports of natural cross-species transmission of CWD outside this group, we addressed the role of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) carcasses as environmental sources of CWD in Wisconsin. Our objectives were to estimate rates of deer carcass and gut pile decomposition in the environment, characterize vertebrate scavenger communities, and quantify the relative activity of scavengers to determine CWD exposure risk. We placed 40 disease-free deer carcasses and nine gut piles in the CWD-affected area of Wisconsin from September to April in 2003 through 2005. We used photos from remotely operated cameras to characterize scavenger communities and relative activity. We used Kaplan-Meier survival analysis and a generalized linear mixed model to quantify the driving factors and rate of carcass removal (decomposition) from the environment.


We recorded 14 species of scavenging mammals (six visiting species), and eight species of scavenging birds (14 visiting species). Prominent scavengers included American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), raccoons (Procyon lotor), and Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana). We found no evidence that deer directly consumed conspecific remains, although they visited them frequently. Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris), cats (Felis catus), and cows (Bos spp.) either scavenged or visited carcass sites, which could increase exposure risk of CWD to humans and human food supplies. Deer carcasses persisted for a median of 18 to 101 days, while gut piles lasted for a median of three days. Habitat did not influence carcass decomposition, but mammalian and avian scavenger activity and higher temperatures (proxy for microbial and arthropod activity) were associated with greater rates of carcass removal. Infected deer carcasses serve as environmental sources of CWD prions to a wide variety of mammalian and avian scavengers. Such sources of infectious material likely influence the maintenance and spread of CWD (in particular), and should be considered in the dynamics of other disease systems as well. Prudence would dictate the use of preemptive management strategies, and we highlight strategies for carcass disposal to mitigate the influence of carcasses as environmental sources of infectious diseases.