Ranging behaviour and duration of survival of wild brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) infected with Mycobacterium bovis

Ranging behaviour and duration of survival of wild brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) infected with Mycobacterium bovis
Peer reviewed


AIM: To quantify the duration of survival of possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) infected with Mycobacterium bovis, and identify aspects of their behaviour which may influence the likelihood of disease transmission to domestic stock or wildlife.
METHODS: Capture and den locations of 14 naturally infected tuberculous possums, eight possums experimentally infected with M. bovis and eight non-infected possums were recorded between May 1998 and February 2000 at a study site near Castlepoint on the Wairarapa coast of the North Island in New Zealand. Denning behaviour was observed weekly using radiotelemetry, and possums were captured, examined and released bi-monthly. Data were used to estimate survival period; create denning, activity, and total ranges; and to identify extended forays by possums as individuals and groups.
RESULTS: Seventeen tuberculous possum carcasses were recovered, of which 14 (82%) were close to or within their activity range. Denning ranges were known for 10/17 possums that died. Four tuberculous possums were found dead within their denning range. Three possums made extended forays in the 3 weeks before death. Twelve possums were found dead in dense scrub, three in long grass in open woodland and two on pasture. Mean duration of survival of naturally infected possums following detection of clinical signs was 3.4 months (95% CI=2.1–5.4) and the instantaneous mortality rate was 0.293 per month (95% CI=0.184–0.470). Signs of disease were obvious for about 3 weeks prior to death. Tuberculous possums were commonly trapped on only part of the area where the total non-infected population was trapped.
CONCLUSION: Most tuberculous possums died within their activity range and in scrub, representing a risk of transmission of M. bovis to wildlife and livestock that forage in scrub. Smaller proportions dying on pasture represent a less frequent, but highly visible risk. Tuberculous possums were clustered on the study site, and localised possum control operations would be more effective if focussed on such areas.
KEY WORDS: Brushtail possum, Trichosurus vulpecula, bovine tuberculosis, Mycobacterium bovis, activity range, denning range, extended foray, hotspot, disease transmission, wildlife reservoir

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