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Bamboo Fueling Spread of Hantavirus

May 08, 2015 12:29 PM EDT
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Bamboo landscaping is gaining popularity in the United States, however ecologists warn in a new study that it is subsequently fueling the spread of hantavirus, which could possibly lead to an outbreak.

According to Washington State University researchers, the plant's prolific seed production is creating a population boom among seed-eating deer mice that carry the disease.

Described in the journal PLOS ONE, some bamboo plants grow in relatively self-contained clumps, while other so-called "running bamboos" can spread rapidly by underground stems called rhizomes, making them difficult to contain. They have extremely intermittent flowering cycles but when they flower, or mast, they produce huge amounts of seed over as many as 18 months. During that time, deer mice can undergo several reproductive cycles. When the seed is gone, they will go looking for new food sources in and around human homes and other dwellings.

More than one in 10 deer mice carry hantavirus, which is spread through contact with their urine, droppings or contaminated dust. People who catch the disease typically experience flu-like symptoms for a few days followed by respiratory and pulmonary complications. Roughly one in three cases is fatal, according to the state Department of Health.

To better understand how this disease could spread, the research team imported bamboo seed from China and fed it to dozens of laboratory-reared deer mice, known scientifically as Peromyscus maniculatus.

"They loved it," lead researcher and ecologist Richard Mack said in a statement. "Generally, they preferred it to rat chow."

Subsequent reproduction trials and population modeling suggested the mice could have population booms similar to those seen in Asian and South American rodents during bamboo masting events.

"We contend that a substantial risk of a similar sequence could arise in North America due to the rapid proliferation and expansion of non-native running bamboos within the range of P. maniculatus," the researchers wrote.

Although a bamboo-mouse-hantavirus outbreak is only a possibility, this rapid spread and increase resembles other biological invasions that have happened in the past involving a non-native plant.

In addition, some imported bamboos would do well in the Northwest's coniferous forests, and deer mice in the bamboos' naturalized range can breed year-round.

The researchers recommend a change in US and Canadian plant quarantine policies to eradicate aggressively spreading non-native bamboo on public lands, as is already the practice in US national parks.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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