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SUNY-ESF student takes part in research looking into virus that hurts wild turkeys

Tony Chao | Art Director

A SUNY-ESF master’s student is working on research as part of a larger study that is looking at a virus discovered in wild turkeys.

Lymphoproliferative Disease Virus was first discovered in 2009 in wild turkeys in the United States by researchers at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. The disease was found when turkeys were brought to the researchers with the original belief that they had pox. Researchers began doing broad surveillance of hunter-killed turkeys up and down the east coast and found that LPDV was surprisingly widespread.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation decided it would take a closer look and see what the virus was doing in New York, but did not have resources to do so. That’s how Katrina Alger ended up working on the project. Alger, a master’s student at the State University of New York College of Environment Science and Forestry, had contacted the wildlife and disease faculty at Cornell University who had steered her toward LPDV research.

Some of the more severe symptoms of LPDV in turkeys are visible scabs and tumors on the head of the turkey. However, direct mortality is not a huge risk for the wild turkey population and it is not well understood what the virus is actually doing to the birds.

“We’ve seen a lot of birds that test positive for the virus that don’t seem to have any outward signs of disease, and I think that’s why researchers are nervous,” said Alger. “There could be other dynamics going on that we’re not aware of and until we figure out more baseline information about the virus itself we won’t really know.”

A main component in Alger’s research includes looking at the special distribution of the virus in New York state specifically to see if there is any sort of relationship between landscape characteristics in each section or significant clusters of infection.

“I’m looking at the space through three different years — so I’m looking at time to see if there are temporal relationships,” she said.

Another important aspect of her research is finding a non-lethal way to easily test birds for LPDV, as the most effective method is using bone marrow.

“One part of my research was trying to discover whether there was a simple way to just test blood,” she said. In addition, the DEC has been getting Alger access to the legs of hunter-killed turkeys to test and continue to discover more about LPDV.

There is no indication that the virus is harmful to humans but the DEC warns against eating a bird that is visibly sick.

Additionally, there is not a clear picture as to how the virus is being spread between birds. Some of the early research did indicate that young birds can transmit the virus horizontally which means back-and -forth between each other, Alger said. Other avian retroviruses can be transmitted vertically, from mother to offspring, which has not been conclusively shown with LPDV but requires more research.

While the virus is detrimentally affecting some turkeys, the recent drop in turkey population cannot be attributed solely to the virus. Waxes and wanes in populations can be caused by a lot of different things; it could be weather related or habitat related, said Alger. There was a dramatic spike in the wild turkey population a few years ago so it is hard for scientists to discern if this change is a normal fallback to carrying capacity, or whether it’s going to continue dropping, she added.

Alger said her research has been a collaborative effort between SUNY-ESF, Cornell University and the New York DEC.

“All three institutions have been incredibly helpful and supportive,” she said.

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