This is the third part of our four-part series on how animal research helps animals. Click to view part 1 on endangered species and part 2 on pets.

Did you know the nation’s wildlife play an important role in everything from our ecosystem to the economy? The delicate balance required for wildlife to flourish can easily be upset by disease or pollution. So it is incredibly important to protect our wildlife population. Let’s take a look at how animal research helps preserve and protect wildlife in the United States.

Sylvatic Plague and Prairie Dogs

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A prairie dog.

Prairie dog colonies can harbor sylvatic plague, a highly infectious disease caused by bacteria spread through flea bites. The same bacteria can cause bubonic and pneumonic plague in humans, and similar symptoms in animals. Sylvatic plague has the potential to wipe out up to 90 percent of prairie dog colonies. However, recent efforts to combat plague in prairie dog populations have led to an effective vaccine through studies in mice. Currently, the vaccine is administered in blocks of food left at prairie dog burrows, but the National Wildlife Health Center plans to formulate the vaccine-laden bait to make it administrable by plane or drone.

Lyme Disease and White-Footed Mice, Deer

The pathogen that causes Lyme disease can be found in white-footed mice, small rodents, and birds. Yet, deer ticks prefer their eponymous host when possible, so areas with large deer populations are at a higher risk for the spread of Lyme disease. New research efforts could prevent the pathogen’s transfer from mouse to tick, something that would help both people and deer.

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A white-tailed deer.

Residents of Nantucket, Massachusetts, for instance, are in need of such research to help tackle the rampant Lyme disease in their town. With one of the highest Lyme disease infection rates in the country, the town also has a “soft spot for deer,” according to a New York Times article. Kevin Esvelt of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could have a solution. He has devised a novel way to genetically engineer mice to become immune to a protein in the tick’s saliva, preventing the transmission of Lyme disease. In the future, this research could help reduce the spread of Lyme disease –protecting both people and deer.

Microplastics and Fish

Poor health of wildlife is often a warning sign that something in the environment has gone awry. Rachel Carson touched on this in her book Silent Spring. While we no longer use the carcinogenic pesticides she crusaded against, there is a new pollution worry – microplastics, such as the tiny beads found in products meant to exfoliate skin. Research in fish has shown that exposure to these tiny particles can alter the behavior of larval perch, making them less receptive to chemical signals warning them of predators. While it’s been known that any sort of debris or pollution is bad for wildlife, this study shows the specific implications of such pollution: certain species of fish being threatened because of the behavior changes caused by the plastics. With this knowledge in mind, policy makers have banned the manufacture of non-biodegradable microplastics in many exfoliants and toothpastes, saving the lives of fish and their predators.

Whether it’s uncovering the cause of diseases or preventing the spread of diseases, animal research is essential for safeguarding wildlife. And because people and animals are so fundamentally interconnected, when wildlife is able to thrive, so are we.

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