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New research sheds light on feral deer as disease transmitters

Eighteen deer species were released into Australia as game animals in the late 1800s, and as a result Australia now has a growing feral deer population with six of those eighteen species establishing viable wild populations (chital, fallow, rusa, red, sambar and hog deer), particularly along the eastern coast.

Feral deer in Australia are not just an emerging problem but a problem which is very much here and needs solutions now.

Through our Centre’s national feral deer management research collaboration, a study is being funded looking at whether feral deer may be disease reservoirs (or hosts) for several diseases of concern to the livestock industry, along with wildlife, domestic animals and even humans.

Why is this important?

There is little information about the overall infection status of feral deer populations in Australia, and it is critical to establish appropriate management strategies for feral deer and to minimise potential impacts on livestock health.

Feral deer commonly feed on pasture and crops in agricultural landscapes, they can be widespread in the landscape and large local populations mean they are likely to come in contact with livestock animals.

What research is being done?

In the first large-scale molecular study of its type, led by Centre for Invasive Species Solutions supported PhD Candidate Jose Huaman from La Trobe University, 243 blood samples and 105 serum samples were analysed from feral deer across eastern-Australia.

The blood samples were tested for the presence of DNA from five parasites, including Plasmodium spp., Trypanosoma spp., Babesia spp., Theileria spp. and Sarcocystis spp., while the serum samples were tested for the presence of antibodies against Babesia bovis.

Diseases caused by these parasites are of concern to Australia’s livestock industries, our native wildlife, or in some cases to human health.

What are the results?

The results published in the International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife found that feral deer in eastern Australia are not considered significant hosts of Trypanosoma, Plasmodium, Babesia, Theileria, and Sarcocystis infections, as neither parasite DNA nor antibodies were detected for any of the five disease types investigated.

The authors do however acknowledge some study limitations regarding season of sample collection and sample size in Queensland.

Where to next?

The expanding populations of feral deer throughout Australia warrant similar surveys in other parts of the country. The research team also acknowledges continual surveillance efforts are needed to further assess the level of threat feral deer could pose to humans, wildlife, livestock and other domestic animals.

This project is part of Australia’s largest deer RD&E collaboration being delivered through CISS, focused currently on five innovative projects:

The disease project involves researchers from Arthur Rylah Institute, the Victorian Government Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, NSW DPI and La Trobe University, and it receives funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment through the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions.

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