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Colorado State researchers study disease and population management in large cats

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A group of diverse Colorado State University researchers are collaborating to further understand the behaviors of big cats to manage disease and populations.

“Basically what we are doing is looking at how diseases spread through populations of mountain lions with the purpose of determining what different features of the landscape might influence the spread of the disease from animal to animal,” said Susan VandeWoude, associate dean for research at CSU.


VandeWoude is working with a group of CSU scientists to study the puma populations. The group includes Kevin Crooks, Ph.D., a wildlife biologist knowledgeable of the behavioral patterns of large carnivores, and Chris Funk, Ph.D., a geneticist who works on endangered species and populations using a process called landscape genetics.

“It gives me the opportunity and them the opportunity to collaborate with people with different skill sets, which is really fun,” VandeWoude said. “They have knowledge of things I have no idea about, and it makes me a better scientist to hear what they have to think about it.”

According to Crooks, mountain lions are a good ‘indicator species,’ meaning that they are a type of animal that can best help scientists to evaluate human effects on wildlife.

“Of the species that tend to decline or disappear in the face of human disturbances … it is our top predators, our largest predators, that tend to decline first,” Crooks said.

The large cats being studied are becoming fairly endangered populations. The research could aid in secluding a future disease outbreak threat, so it does not spread through an entire population.

“The Florida panther is endangered,” VandeWoude said. “There is a lot of effort to try to enhance that population.”

VandeWoude’s team is interested in how disease is spread in animals that travel long distances.

She is tracking several diseases in these animals. The diseases are not particularly harmful to the animals, but are is easy to track, similar to a cold sore virus in a human.

“I think we want to find out more about human development and how it might influence travel and movement of the large cats,” said Jennifer Malmberg, a researcher for VandeWoude’s lab. “We can infer that from which viruses they carry and which cats they’ve been in contact with.”


Vandewoude hopes to take the research on how diseases are spread to help stop future outbreaks of diseases like feline leukemia virus.

“The model we are developing would be kind of like for an emergency situation,” VandeWoude said. “We would have some guidelines on what we would do to control an outbreak from decimating or spreading.”

VandeWoude and her team are working with the historical archives of these large cats. Elliott Chiu, a graduate student in VandeWoude’s lab, uses polymerase chain reactions to study the DNA of both domestic and large cats to detect genetic codes that are unique to the virus.

The CSU researchers are working closely with groups in Florida and California as well as professionals from other universities in order to get the best overall understanding for their research.

“These pumas are difficult to study,” Crooks said. “They are rare, and they are secretive, and they are nocturnal.”

Together, the team hopes to better monitor more than just puma populations.

“You never really know what you are going to find out,” VandeWoude said. “I would be shocked if we didn’t discover something we had never anticipated that made us want to do more field work to investigate it further.”

Collegian Reporter Stephanie Mason can be reached at and on Twitter @stephersmason.

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