Research / Discovery

Infectious diseases studied among bobcats, mountain lions, and domestic cats in Boulder

June 22, 2010

Starting this summer, researchers from Colorado State University will study how often bobcats, mountain lions, and domestic cats bump into each other in Boulder as part of a five-year, $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to identify the dynamics of infectious diseases among wild cats and domestic pets.

Urbanization and disease transmission

A photo of a mountain lion taken by a remote camera last summer on the Uncompahgre Plateau on Colorado's Western Slope.

Kevin Crooks, associate professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, and Sue VandeWoude, professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology, are collecting samples and monitoring movement behavior of different cat species in divergent habitats in Colorado, Florida, and California as a way to see a day-in-a-life of a cat.

The scientists are looking for trends between disease dynamics and urban fragmentation among feline species in high-density places such as Los Angeles and Boulder compared to more rural areas. Ultimately, they hope to understand the relationship between urbanization and the prevalence of disease transmission within and between cat species.

In addition to mapping movements of the cats from GPS collars placed on the animals, scientists and graduate students are using remote camera data to photograph cat behavior and location.

Last summer, one of Crooks’ graduate students, Jesse Lewis, set out 40 motion-activated cameras in a 160-square-kilometer rural study area outside Montrose on the Uncompahgre Plateau on Colorado’s Western Slope. During the course of a three-month period, he found that bobcats, pumas, and domestic cats crossed paths quite often.

Motion-activated cameras west of Boulder

A photo of a domestic cat taken by a remote camera during a Western Slope study.

CSU researchers will set out another 40 motion-activated cameras this summer west of urban Boulder that will capture photos of bobcats and any other wildlife that passes by. Lewis also plans to place GPS collars on about 20 bobcats outside of Boulder in collaboration with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which is concurrently tracking pumas in the area with GPS devices. In addition, another CSU graduate student, Ashley Gramza, also intends to use GPS collars to track domestic cats along the urban edge to better understand their movements and overlap with wild cats.

“It was fascinating to see that the 40 cameras in Colorado’s Western Slope captured all three species during the course of the three months of sampling last year. We even recorded domestic cats, bobcats, or mountain lions sharing the same trail just 24 hours apart,” Crooks said. “What this tells us is that domestic cats and wild cats are living in relatively close proximity, and the opportunities for them to share diseases as well as habitat definitely exist.”

Overlapping habitats and risks of infection

Bobcats like this one share overlapping habitats with pumas in the Boulder, Colo., area.

Bobcats and pumas share overlapping habitats in Boulder and are susceptible to many of the same diseases and risks of infection with some domestic cat pathogens. As part of this research, scientists are studying the extent that diseases in puma and bobcat populations are found in domestic cats. Some of these diseases, such as toxoplasmosis and bartonella, or cat scratch disease, can also infect humans.

"We know that these species’ habitats are impacted by urban development; what we don’t know yet is how that 'pile-up,' or restriction of home ranges near urban boundaries, impacts disease transmission among these populations. We suspect that the kinds of pathogens these animals share and the rate of infection changes as these species are forced to live in closer proximity," said VandeWoude, principal investigator on the study.

VandeWoude's lab specializes in the study of a common feline disease, feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, which creates a lifelong infection and can be fatal to animals. Bobcats, pumas, and domestic cats each have their own specific FIV strain. VandeWoude will look at how multiple infectious diseases may spread among different cat populations or change based on close contact through sharing habitat.

Habitat fragmentation a serious threat to biological diversity worldwide

Habitat fragmentation has been targeted as one of the most serious threats to biological diversity worldwide; urbanization is a leading agent of fragmentation and cause of species endangerment.

Fellow collaborators on this project include Drs. Michael Lappin and Mo Salman at Colorado State and colleagues at the Colorado Division of Wildlife, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, National Institutes of Health, University of California-Davis, and the University of Florida.


Contact: Kimberly Sorensen
E-mail: Kimberly.Sorensen@colostate.edu
Phone: (970) 491-0757