A new project tracing the movement of puma populations (also known as mountain lions or cougars) in the United States will provide insights into disease spread in other mammals including native Australian animals such as wombats, koalas and Tasmanian Devils.

University of Tasmania ecologist Scott Carver will contribute his disease ecology and epidemiology research expertise to the $2.14 million dollar Colorado-based project that has been funded by the US government agency the National Science Foundation. The puma project team also includes researchers from Colorado State University, the University of Minnesota and a variety of US state and federal agencies with backgrounds in virology, ecology, conservation, genetics and modelling.

Dr Carver’s previous research includes projects focussed on the transmission of mosquito-borne viruses, the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour and the spread of mange in populations of Tasmanian wombats. He will assist his US colleagues on the project with the mathematical and statistical analysis needed to create models of how disease is expected to spread geographically through puma populations.

Investigations during the project will determine how the spread of disease is affected by management actions such as hunting and relocation of animals; how future disease outbreaks might spread through vulnerable populations; and how they might be controlled via vaccination, development of quarantine buffer zones, or other means.

Whilst the focus of the project is on six wild populations of pumas across Florida, Colorado and California, Dr Carver said knowledge gained from the research will be applicable to other wide-ranging species, such as large herbivores, and other carnivores including Australian native species.

“We hope the results of the puma project will greatly increase the understanding of how to manage invasive diseases such as the facial tumour in the Tasmanian Devil, mange in wombats, toxoplasma in bandicoots and chlamydia in koalas,” he said.

“We want to develop a deeper understanding of the impacts of the environment, animal population genetics and management interventions on the spread of diseases in native animals. Whilst we currently have some capacity to treat individual animals during disease outbreaks, we need to develop more effective tools to determine the best way to manage diseases in animal populations in the wild.”

Dr Carver said the project will use genetic techniques to determine the movements of animals in the wild.

“It’s hard to track the movement of animals and how often they contact one another, so we use genetics to help infer this. Genetic assessment of the puma populations provides information about which individuals are related, and the degree of interbreeding. This is one measure of which individuals have interacted. This also provides evidence of their geographical movements over generations,” he said.

“We will also use the genetics of several different viruses to trace their spread through the puma populations. It’s a very accurate way to determine how diseases move and which animals are most likely to be more susceptible to contracting diseases.”

This information will be used to develop new models for predicting and preventing the spread of viruses in complex landscapes.

The puma project has a strong research focus but also includes outreach efforts to educate the public about conservation issues, and engage students in relevant studies in disease ecology.

“One outreach project will involve the creation of a video game that simulates disease movements and lets kids manipulate puma populations to help them avoid infection,” Dr Carver said.

“The project will also generate a PhD opportunity for a Tasmanian student to work in the US researching disease transmission in animals and for US students to travel to Australia and work with scientists at the University of Tasmania.

Study Ecology  though our Bachelor of Science majoring in Zoology, or Bachelor of Animal Science and you could be playing with big cats too!