Virus Provides Clues to Cougar Country

Scientists track wild cats in Rockies by studying FIV strains.

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Cougars with the feline version of HIV are making it easier for scientists to track their movement through the Rocky Mountain region of North America.

By analyzing 352 cougars with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), a team of biologists says they were able to determine where the big cats had traveled recently, providing a better method of tracking than radio collars or genetic testing. Their research appears in the Jan. 27 issue of Science.

Since the virus mutates quickly, the biologists could identify where a particular cougar had come from by checking which strain of the virus the cat had. Their research showed that most cougars stayed within a small pocket of territory, but others ranged out to about 600 miles.

Toni Ruth, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a National Geographic article that the information could be used to help protect the animals.

For conservation purposes, if we understand how they are getting from one area to another we can maintain the natural corridors they follow, Ruth said.

The virus is not a threat to cougars, which are unaffected by it. FIV primarily affects domestic cats and cheetahs, and is contracted through saliva, mostly by bites.

Posted: Feb. 1, 2006, 5 a.m. EST

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