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Cerrado’s maned wolves, squeezed by humans, may be picking up mange from dogs

  • Eight maned wolves losing their fur have been seen along the border between the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais in Brazil in recent years.
  • They were diagnosed with sarcoptic mange, or canine scabies, an infestation by a burrowing mite that also occurs in domestic dogs.
  • Researchers suspect the infestation is the result of contact with domestic dogs, which increasingly come into contact with wildlife as human settlements and activities eat into the wolf’s habitat.
  • The transformation of the species’ native Cerrado habitat for soy cultivation and cattle ranching, combined with the clearing of dense vegetation in the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests, have pushed the maned wolf into these latter landscapes in recent years.

It was 11:30 in the morning on Feb. 4 this year. A gray sky threatened heavy rains. Everything was calm as usual at the front gate of the Brejão Farm, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Arceburgo, a town of 10,000 in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state. Luiz Máximo Gonçalves Filho, 53, was wrapping up his shift as a security guard.

“I saw an animal approaching, but there was something wrong with it,” he told Mongabay. “When it got closer, I could see it was a maned wolf, but without a hair on its body.”

A few hours later, at 2:30 p.m., the maned wolf reappeared. The rain was now falling hard. Gonçalves Filho was alerted to it by a flock of stork-like seriema birds, which started running away.

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“I looked down the road and saw the hairless wolf again. I ran to get my cellphone and started filming it.”

Slowly and cautiously, the animal, which Gonçalves Filho says was likely a female, crossed into the farm and disappeared. He never saw it again.

The town of Arceburgo sits in the transition zone between the lush Atlantic Forest and the dry Cerrado. It’s not uncommon to find animals native to both biomes here, including the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus).

“We’ve seen them here on the farm a few times,” Gonçalves Filho said. “They usually come at night to get some sort of leftover food. I’m sure I had seen this same wolf about three weeks before, but she had fur then.”

The video of the furless maned wolf reached the desk of the municipal secretary of the environment, Ademir Carosia, who immediately contacted the National Center for Research and Conservation of Carnivorous Mammals at the Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity (Cenap/ICMBio). Experts there suggested sarcoptic mange as the possible cause of the animal’s problem, a condition that’s also found in domestic dogs and better known as canine scabies.

The case was no surprise to Rogério Cunha de Paula, a biologist and environmental analyst at Cenap, who has studied maned wolves for 25 years. De Paula coordinates the National Plan of Action for the Conservation of Wild Canines (PAN Canídeos) at ICMBio and said he began seeing maned wolves with sarcoptic mange in 2012, in the Canastra Mountains of Minas Gerais. A case in São Paulo stated had been documented three years earlier, and there have been reports of cases in the states of Goiás and Bahia as well.

“We still haven’t investigated the problem thoroughly,” de Paula said. “But over the last year we began mapping reports of wolves with alopecia [baldness] similar to the animals we have identified with sarcoptic mange.” He said the region where Arceburgo lies is probably experiencing an infestation of the Sarcoptes scabiei mite, which is responsible for this type of mange.

Domestic dogs as a possible source of transmission

S. scabiei is a parasite that lives in the inner layers of the host animal’s skin. Veterinarian Flávia Fiori, a maned wolf specialist at the Institute for the Conservation of Neotropical Carnivores (Pró-Carnívoros), says that when it attaches to an animal’s skin, it begins to tunnel in with its mouth, causing discomfort to the animal.

“The consequences of mange in an animal can eventually lead to death because of secondary infections,” Fiori said. “The skin is the first and largest defense organ, and once its integrity has been compromised, the animal can come into contact with other pathogens and develop infections that further weaken its health.”

Contact between maned wolves and domestic dogs infested with sarcoptic mange is the most likely reason for the cases along the São Paulo/Minas Gerais border.

“We still don’t have any studies on the epidemiological chain, meaning the way the ectoparasite propagates itself, in Brazilian wolves,” Fiori said. “So we can’t claim that the wolf in Arceburgo and other wolves are catching the mites from contact with domestic animals. But we also can’t throw it out as a possibility because the increasing proximity of pets and wildlife in general make it rather likely.”

Sarcoptic mange can be transmitted through direct or indirect contact. Direct transmission, Fiori said, “can happen between the members of a family group, during parenting, mating or fights. But between animals from different species, it happens during the hunt.”

Indirect transmission happens when animals come into contact with inanimate objects that infested animals have previously come into contact with. “In the case of wildlife, it can be grass or even a contaminated den,” Fiori said.

But she added that these known forms of transmission have still not been proven in the case of the maned wolves. National mapping of cases is one of the projects underway at PAN Canideos which, among other things, aims to “reduce the negative impacts of illnesses and interactions with domestic animals.”

Aside from working with maned wolves, the national plan of action seeks to reduce the factors causing negative impacts on the bush dog (Speothos venaticus), the short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis), and the hoary fox (Lycalopex vetulus). All four species are classified as vulnerable on Brazil’s endangered species list.

Historically, the greatest threat to maned wolves has been the loss and transformation of their habitat. Changes brought on by human occupation and economic activities like farming and cattle ranching in the Cerrado, the species’ natural biome, are among the leading causes of the wolf’s shrinking population. At the same time, the clearing of the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests has allowed the wolf to expand into these areas that were previously outside its natural range. Maned wolf populations have established themselves in areas where the Atlantic Rainforest is being regenerated, and studies are underway to understand whether this is also happening within the Arc of Deforestation in the southern Amazon, where 22 maned wolf sightings were reported over the last 25 years.

Flávia Fiori, a veterinarian at Pró-Carnívoros, examines a maned wolf. Image by Adriano Gambarini.

Eight wolves have already been infected

The mapping underway by the PAN Canídeos researchers via capturing and photographing maned wolves has found another seven of the animals with sarcoptic mange in the municipalities of Mococa, São José do Rio Pardo and Caconde, all on the São Paulo side of the border with Minas Gerais. Mococa lies just 15 km (9 mi) from Arceburgo.

One of the wolves was a 6-year-old female, captured in Mococa in July 2019. She had a litter of pups, and her mange problem was discovered when images of her were captured by cameras belonging to the Lobos do Pardo project. Lobos do Pardo is part of Pró-Carnívoros together with Cenap/ICMBio and power supply company AES Tietê, aimed at conservation of the species inside the Rio Pardo basin. The researchers captured the wolf in a trap especially designed for maned wolves. They then were able to gather tissue specimens for study, medicate her, and release her with a monitoring collar. They also named her Pimenta.

“Pimenta had severe skin and fur problems, but the treatment was a success,” Fiori said. She said treated animals typically show great improvement a month after oral medication; after three months, all signs of mange disappear.

While treatment for sarcoptic mange is well established, prevention of the disease is not. And because studies on the transmission of the disease in maned wolves are just beginning, researchers still have no exact answers. But avoiding contact with domestic animals is considered essential.

“Without a doubt, I only see advantages to avoiding contact between domestic and wild animals, especially domestic cats and dogs,” Fiori said. “Whether the maned wolves are catching mange from dogs or not, avoiding this contact minimizes possible risks from not just this but also many other illnesses that they may be carrying and pass along.”

Fiori said dog and cat owners should care for them responsibly, keeping vaccinations and worm treatments up to date and ensuring they’re healthy and well fed, and protected within their own personal property lines.

As for the furless maned wolf in Arceburgo, city officials say they’ve instructed residents and employees at the farm to contact the authorities if they see the animal again.

“I would really like to be able to help that little wolf,” said Gonçalves Filho, the security guard who first saw her.

Pimenta, the female maned wolf, before and after treatment for sarcoptic mange. Images by Rogério Cunha de Paula.

Banner image: Fur loss caused by sarcoptic mange in the maned wolf named Pimenta, who was captured in Mococa, in the state of São Paulo. Image by Rogério Cunha de Paula.

This article was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on March 23, 2021.

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