November’s wildlife post is about deer and SARS-CoV-2. I recently began a new job. It’s based in Halifax, though all of us writers work from home. We have coffee chats three mornings a week and often we talk about wildlife in our yards, like beautiful owls and families of deer. Because some of us live closer to the country rather than the city, we marvel at the deer coming into our yards. The deer coming into our personal yard are sometimes hard to see because, behind our house, we have a section of the yard that was landscaped into gardens by the previous owners. We have three rose gardens directly out back, complete with stone statue bird baths, and then the garden and bonfire pit we built closer to the northwest side of our house. Behind the rose gardens are three large spruce trees and a hawthorn. These trees mark the entrance to the meadow, and that’s where the deer like to hang out. Occasionally the deer will come up to eat fruits fallen from a tree, but the deer are evasive for the most part, and if we’re out there, even sitting on the balcony watching, they will often be too shy to come near.
However, deer are in the city, and some don’t seem to be frightened of people. But out here, in our yard at least, we know that theu sleep, they poop, and like to eat fallen pears, apples, and blackberries that border our yard with the neighbors as well as various weeds and leaves (this is why our new trees are protected in fencing), and the deer seem to love to sleep around the area behind the spruce trees where a lot of wild grapes and other foliage provide some privacy and comfort. We often go out to see that the deer have slept among the wild grape leaves. These are all white-tailed deer, a species native to North America.
Recently NPR covered a story about how SARS-CoV-2 (commonly called COVID-19) in American deer could alter the course of the global pandemic. White-tailed deer, the article said, are highly susceptible to the virus and studies have shown that 40% of white-tailed deer in the Northeast and the Midwest have been found to have antibodies for the virus. The study shows that there are multiple spillovers and onward transmission of the virus in the deer. Many animal species are susceptible, in fact. The virus has been found among minks, hyenas, dogs, cats, lions, bats, and more. The NPR article goes on to state that deer have caught the virus from people and might be able to pass it back. The good news is that the virus so far does not seem to be making deer sick but, also, the new data is concerning because SARS-CoV-2 can evolve and mutate inside the deer. The NPR article and study found that animals could carry the virus indefinitely and spread it back to humans periodically.
“If we want to continue to be proactive about emerging variants—and not be surprised by one that suddenly pops up—there’s an urgent need to continue to monitor SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife,” he [veterinary virologist Suresh Kuchipudi at Penn State] says, “especially in animals that could serve as a reservoir, like the deer.”
Note that animals passing the virus back to people is a subject needing more research. Sources like the USDA and CDC say that animals passing the virus back to people is low or not significant. Further, more studies are needed to know exactly how animals like the white-tailed deer are getting the virus. Because of unknowns, scientists urge hunters to take precautions when processing wild game and humans as well—do not feed deer, for instance. Regarding the beginnings of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, according to the CDC:
Epidemiologists determined that the virus possibly came from an animal sold at a market. The new virus was found to be a coronavirus, and coronaviruses cause a severe acute respiratory syndrome. This new coronavirus is similar to SARS-CoV, so it was named SARS-CoV-2.
The Hill reported the study as well and stated:
“The viral lineages we identified correspond to the same lineages circulating in humans at that time,” Vivek Kapur, professor of microbiology and infectious diseases at Penn State and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “The fact that we found several different SARS-CoV-2 lineages circulating within geographically confined herds across the state suggests the occurrence of multiple independent spillover events from humans to deer, followed by local deer-to-deer transmission,” Vivek said.
Back when I first moved to Nova Scotia, I read all I could about the coronavirus found in humans. I came across an article about a scientist who had predicted a SARS disease like it. He, among so many others, had been warning governments and the public for years about the possibilities of such a pandemic, but, evidently, the calculated risk was too low and proper funding therefore was also low on the priority scale. Couple these facts with the initial response by some government officials, such as Trump, a lot of misinformation caused a deadly pandemic to spread faster than it should have. To this day, lies about the disease continue to halt the best progress we could be making in fighting the disease.
It is sometimes the smallest things that can affect us the most, in this case, viruses. At Dragonfly, I explore how literature and ecology intersect, but within the overwhelming hyperobjects (like climate change) usually listed at the site, microcosms of ecological systems are breaking down as well, finding their way into data as well as our stories. COVID-19 is just an example of that. Key takeaways from a study titled “The COVID-19 pandemic is intricately linked to biodiversity loss and ecosystem health” © 2021 by its authors (see The Lancet Planetary Health) are:
- Multiple anthropogenic drivers promote zoonotic pathogen spillover and disease emergence, such as land-use change, intensive livestock production, wildlife trade, and climate change
- Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on biodiversity and ecosystem health can exacerbate drivers of zoonotic and infectious disease emergence, increasing the risk for future zoonotic pathogen spillover events and possible public health crises; these cyclic relationships create a positive feedback loop
- Biodiversity and ecosystem health effects of COVID-19 are diverse and interconnected, and include effects on conservation funding, tourism, environmental policy, Indigenous land managers, and human-wildlife contact
- Decision makers should consider how actions and strategies in response to COVID-19 could affect drivers of zoonotic disease, biodiversity, and ecosystem health, and urgently act to minimise their negative effects and feedback loops
- A One Health collaborative approach, decision science, and sustainable pandemic recovery strategies provide important tools for addressing both the COVID-19 pandemic recovery globally and future zoonotic spillover risk, while taking into account biodiversity and ecosystem health
It seems so important to pay attention to scientists warning us about our natural world and our impacts on it. Our ecosystems—even the small ones in our yards—need our help. For instance, we can provide pollinator space or, if we have the room, allow for deer and other wildlife to have a safe sanctuary. But while doing so, we should also pay attention to studies that warn us about natural boundaries we should extend with wild animals. Don’t feed the deer and be aware of studies that alert us to proper behavior in the wild.