A semi-deadly virus that causes tumors in turkeys was recently deemed far more widespread than originally thought. Thankfully, experts have also discovered that the virus is far less threatening than they had believed, easing concerns among ecologists.
That's at least according to the preliminary findings of a newly complete study of US wild turkey populations.
Justin Brown, lead researcher at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, recently told The Associated Press (AP) that the virus in question, called Lymphoproliferative Disease Virus (LPDV), was initially a huge source of worry for conservationists and game authorities alike.
That's because the disease, while common in Europe and Israel, wasn't seen in the United States until 2009. Then, it was quickly associated with the decline of wild turkey populations in regions like upstate New York, Mississippi and Pennsylvania.
The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) even reported that the net population of wild US turkeys has declined 15 percent from the historic high of seven million gobblers.
"New York is facing a 20-year low, and Mississippi's turkey population has declined by more than 40 percent from 2004 to 2009," the NWTF reported back in 2013.
This national decline was seen as a threat to annual turkey hunts - a lucrative pastime for many states. Ecologists were equally worried about this trend, as wild turkeys are a common main course for predators like coyotes, foxes, hawks, and owls, who likewise hold cornerstone positions in ecosystems across North America.
The NWTF places the blame on general habitat loss, as it was estimated that the US loses about 6,000 acres of true wilderness to development every day.
However, "once we discovered [LPDV in the US] and found it was common, there was a big scare," Brown admitted to the AP. "There was a fear that this virus was decimating turkeys and we've missed it all these years." (Scroll to read on...)
Initial studies of LPDV among turkeys revealed that an infection could promote rampant tissue growth, turning a turkey's head into a mess of tumors. Eventually, these tumors could render a bird blind or even clog its airways, suffocating the poor animal. In that sense, LPDV was relatively fatal, and if it was widely prevalent, it could pose a serious threat to US turkey numbers.
That's where the latest study comes in, following up on initial studies launched since 2009. Brown said that it provides some much needed perspective that should quell fears.
"We found that infection is widespread and common, but the development of tumors is actually a rare event," he explained.
He went on to add that it is still uncertain how often tumors actually develop, or if there are any special circumstances under which it can happen. Still, he could say with certainty that the virus is far less fatal than initially suspected.
And that's fantastic news, especially since there is evidence that LPDV is still spreading to new and unaffected turkey populations.
Back in April the New Hampshire Fish and Game offices reported their first cases of both LPDV and a resurgence of Avian Pox Virus. Unfortunately, it's difficult for field surveyors to differentiate the infected turkeys based on appearance alone, as the pox similarly leaves liaisons around a turkey's eyes and throat.
Blind and hungry, the affected turkeys were becoming easy prey for local predators.
Still, you shouldn't worry about North America's turkeys just yet. Overall numbers are still enormously high when compared to populations in the early part of the 20th century - when turkey shoots were in their peak, and mass killings were not unheard of. The NYDEC reports that in 1930 North America had 30,000 wild turkeys; today, that number hovers around 6.4 million.
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