Research Article: Mink Farms Predict Aleutian Disease Exposure in Wild American Mink

Date Published: July 18, 2011

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Larissa A. Nituch, Jeff Bowman, Kaela B. Beauclerc, Albrecht I. Schulte-Hostedde, Jianming Qiu.

Abstract: Infectious diseases can often be of conservation importance for wildlife. Spillover, when infectious disease is transmitted from a reservoir population to sympatric wildlife, is a particular threat. American mink (Neovison vison) populations across Canada appear to be declining, but factors thus far explored have not fully explained this population trend. Recent research has shown, however, that domestic mink are escaping from mink farms and hybridizing with wild mink. Domestic mink may also be spreading Aleutian disease (AD), a highly pathogenic parvovirus prevalent in mink farms, to wild mink populations. AD could reduce fitness in wild mink by reducing both the productivity of adult females and survivorship of juveniles and adults.

To assess the seroprevalence and geographic distribution of AD infection in free-ranging mink in relation to the presence of mink farms, we conducted both a large-scale serological survey, across the province of Ontario, and a smaller-scale survey, at the interface between a mink farm and wild mink.

Antibodies to AD were detected in 29% of mink (60 of 208 mink sampled); however, seroprevalence was significantly higher in areas closer to mink farms than in areas farther from farms, at both large and small spatial scales. Our results indicate that mink farms act as sources of AD transmission to the wild. As such, it is likely that wild mink across North America may be experiencing increased exposure to AD, via disease transmission from mink farms, which may be affecting wild mink demographics across their range. In light of declining mink populations, high AD seroprevalence within some mink farms, and the large number of mink farms situated across North America, improved biosecurity measures on farms are warranted to prevent continued disease transmission at the interface between mink farms and wild mink populations.

Partial Text: Declines in carnivore populations are often associated with infectious diseases [1], [2]. Spillover, when infectious disease is transmitted from a reservoir population (often a domesticated species) to sympatric wildlife, is a particular threat to wild species because domestic animals can act as maintenance hosts [3]. Many cases of disease spillover from domestic animal reservoirs to wildlife have been reported, such as spillover of rabies from domestic dogs to the highly endangered Ethiopian Wolf (Canis simensis) [4], and repeated outbreaks of the Rinderpest virus in wild African ruminants caused by contact with domestic cattle [5].

The identification of significant reservoirs of disease is fundamental to the management of disease transmitted between wildlife and domestic livestock [39]. We found that AD is present and widespread among free-ranging mink in Ontario. Our first hypothesis, that AD is spread by mink escaping from farms, was only weakly supported, and only at the large scale. We found very little evidence of a relationship between AD seropositivity and mink genotype (domestic, hybrid or wild). Instead, our findings were more consistent with our second hypothesis, that mink farms themselves are sources of AD virus. Seroprevalence in free-ranging mink was higher in closer proximity to mink farms at both scales of investigation. Distance from the nearest mink farm was a stronger predictor of AD seroprevalence at the small-scale interface between the farm and the wild (Niagara) than at the larger scale of investigation (Ontario). We interpret our findings to suggest that AD was spreading from point sources (mink farms) into the free-ranging mink population. At the small spatial scale, the signature of this pattern was relatively strong, when we sampled close to the sole active mink farm present within the study area. At the larger spatial scale however, AD prevalence appeared to take on a less structured spatial pattern of seroprevalence, which was linked to multiple point sources (multiple farms). Although most of our samples from northern Ontario, where there are currently no mink farms, were obtained from one single county (Timiskaming), we do not believe this has skewed the effect of distance on seroprevalance, as the Timiskaming samples actually originated from 7 different townships. Moreover, we observed the same trend of higher seroprevalence in closer proximity to mink farms at the smaller scale of investigation, in which Timiskaming samples were not included. A similar pattern has been noted resulting from spillover of the pathogen Crithidia bombi from commercially reared bumble bees to wild bumble bees (Bombus spp.), where the prevalence and intensity of infections in the wild declined with increasing distance from commercial greenhouse operations [40].