Assessing a potential non-invasive method for viral diagnostic purposes in European squirrels

Everest, D J and Tolhurst-Cherriman, D A R and Davies, H and Dastjerdi, A and Ashton, A and Blackett, T and Meredith, A L and Milne, E and Mill, A and Shuttleworth, C M (2019) Assessing a potential non-invasive method for viral diagnostic purposes in European squirrels. HYSTRIX-ITALIAN JOURNAL OF MAMMALOGY, 30 (1). pp. 44-50.

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Viral infections globally threaten wild and captive mammal populations, with surveillance options limited by a lack of non-invasive diagnostics; especially when infection is asymptomatic in nature. We explored the potential for hair samples collected from red (Sciurus vulgaris) and grey (Sciurus carolinensis) squirrels to provide a means of screening for adenovirus (ADV) and squirrelpox virus (SQPV) using evolving polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays. An initial pilot study phase utilised samples opportunistically harvested from grey squirrels controlled in Gwynedd, United Kingdom (UK). The screening of 319 grey squirrel carcasses revealed 58% spleen ADV DNA qPCR and 69% SQPV antibody enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) positives. We developed new nested ADV and SQPV qPCRs and examined tail hair samples from a sub-set of 80 of these 319 sampled squirrels and these assays amplified ADV and SQPV DNA in a higher proportion of animals than the original qPCR (94% and 21% respectively). Tail hair samples obtained from six Cumbrian red squirrels which had died from squirrelpox disease also revealed 100% SQPV and 50% ADV DNA positive by the nested qPCR assays. These findings indicate enhanced sensitivity for the new platform. The integration of this non-invasive approach in assessing viral infection has wide application in epidemiological studies of wild mammal populations, in particular, during conservation translocations, where asymptomatic infections are of concern.

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