WRMD-S (Wildlife Rehabilitation Medical Database-Surveillance): A novel wildlife disease surveillance tool for improving our understanding of wildlife health threats in California

 

Wildlife health is a key part of why the Wildlife Investigations Lab was formed and a vital part of the California Wildlife Action Plan. Disease and human impacts, such as land use change, invasive species and climate change, are significant drivers of wildlife health.  The impact on wildlife from these threats is rapidly increasing the need for an enhanced understanding of the major hazards to the health and survival of wild species, especially those that are difficult to monitor. In addition, given the increasing realization that wildlife diseases have a significant impact on human and domestic animal health, more efficient approaches for detection and monitoring of wildlife disease are necessary.

Developers at the Wild Neighbors Data Base, in collaboration with investigators at the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center (WHC) at the University of California Davis and the Wildlife Investigations Laboratory (WIL) at California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), designed and developed a web application that works in parallel with the free online Wildlife Rehabilitation Medical Database (WRMD) pronounced “wormed”.

The primary objective is to augment the on-line medical database (WRMD), with mechanisms to integrate and aggregate data from wildlife rehabilitation centers and detect and signal investigators to potential wildlife health events, and facilitate information sharing among wildlife rehabilitation centers and between centers and the CDFW and the WHC.

This project is the first of its kind and uses the valuable information collected by wildlife rehabilitation centers to enhance wildlife disease surveillance for many different species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians across the state. In California, every year, between 65,000- 80,000 wild animals are found sick, injured or orphaned by the public and are taken to wildlife rehabilitation centers. Because of this, the wildlife rehabilitation centers in California are on the front line against wildlife disease and mortality events.

The project incorporates both disease specific and non-disease specific data in order to detect events that may warrant further investigation and diagnosis by WIL. The data is aggregated by species and then sorted against programmed thresholds, generated from four years of wildlife rehabilitation center admission data obtained from CDFW wildlife rehabilitation annual reports.  Species with numbers of admissions exceeding the thresholds, signifying a potential wildlife health event, are displayed as alerts.

The detailed view for each species exceeding the threshold includes a chart showing one or more years of data allowing for visualizations of trends over time (Fig.1).  By using Google Maps API the application includes a feature in which the location found for each case is displayed on the map (Fig.2).

fig1

Figure 1. Chart displaying number of individuals admitted weekly over one year (top) and over 15 year period (bottom). This feature can be used to visualize long-term trends of admissions of each species.

fig2

Figure 2. Map displaying the spatial distribution of cases in an alert and underlying data for a selected case.

Alerts are assessed each week and also evaluated for clusters of syndromes and specific diseases. Depending on the circumstances of the alerts, investigators at CDFW and the Wildlife Health Center conduct health investigations in collaboration with rehabilitation centers.  Data is collected on the outcome of the investigations, including any post-mortem examination findings and results of the diagnostic tests.  Data is also collected on the numbers of admissions for threatened and endangered species and animals on the species of special concerns list for California. Since launching the program in July, the numbers of alerts per week ranged from 11-58 (median = 48).  Alerts included clusters of specific diseases (lead poisoning, trichomonas) and/or syndromes (neurologic disease, hemorrhagic disease) as well as animals affected by oil and suspect poisoning cases. On average, four alerts were followed up on by investigators each week to request samples and/or in collaboration with the rehabilitation centers.

Recently, the application has alerted investigators to an adverse health event in Western and Clark’s Grebes and Double-crested cormorants. Several grebes and cormorants are presenting to centers in central and southern California with emaciation. CDFW is working with centers and field biologists to conduct post-mortem examinations and laboratory analyses to investigate the cause(s). These alerts mirror findings by scientists documenting a downward trend in these populations along the Pacific Coast, which is hypothesized to be due in part to a change in the abundance and availability of their food base.

This pilot project began on July 1, 2016 and will continue through 2018. Around 30 wildlife rehabilitation centers around the state are participating in the pilot project.

Prepared by Nicole Carion and Terra Kelly, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACZM

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