Photo by Jared Belson
Black-footed ferrets are extremely endangered, and unfortunately, their main source of prey is putting their small populations in even more jeopardy. Black-footed ferrets hunt and eat prairie dogs, which are susceptible to sylvatic plague, which is caused by Yersinia pestis (the bacterium also responsible for bubonic plague). Not only does the plague often wipe out the ferrets’ food source, but it can kill ferrets that eat infected prairie dogs.
To combat the plague, there are a couple of approaches that have been used. Ferrets can be given yearly vaccinations, and prairie dog burrows can be dusted with insecticides to kill the fleas that carry the disease. But now, there’s a new option which is much less time consuming and costly, which involves spreading dice-sized cubes of vaccine-laced peanut butter bait throughout the prairie dogs’ habitats.
Researchers are working hard to save the black-footed ferret. It turns out that they needed to focus on protecting one animal in order to save another, and their creativity will hopefully pay off! They were able to develop this vaccine thanks to previous research that focused on creating plague vaccines for domestic cats. Read more about this research here and here.