Survey of Zoonotic Pathogens in White-tailed Deer on
Bald Head Island, North Carolina
Brandon L. Sherrill, Anthony G. Snider, Suzanne Kennedy-Stoskopf, and
Christopher S. DePerno
Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 11, Issue 3 (2012): 529–533
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2012 SOUTHEASTERN NATURALIST 11(3):529–533
Survey of Zoonotic Pathogens in White-tailed Deer on
Bald Head Island, North Carolina
Brandon L. Sherrill1,*, Anthony G. Snider2, Suzanne Kennedy-Stoskopf 3, and
Christopher S. DePerno1
Abstract - Odocoileus virginianus (White-tailed Deer) have become overabundant in
many urban and suburban areas, which can cause concern about exposure of humans
and pets to zoonotic pathogens. Bald Head Island, NC is a small barrier island that has
experienced ongoing residential development since the mid-1980s and has a relatively
high deer density (15–17 deer/km2). To address concerns expressed by residents, we
screened ≈13% of the White-tailed Deer population for potential zoonotic pathogens. We
collected blood from 8 deer in January through March 2008 and 5 deer in January 2009.
We tested sera for antibodies to Anaplasma phagocytophilum, Borrelia burgdorferi, and
six serovars of Leptospira interrogans; and whole blood samples for Bartonella spp. and
B. burgdorferi DNA. All sera were negative for antibodies to L. interrogans; two samples
were seropositive for A. phagocytophilum, and one was seropositive for B. burgdorferi.
Whole blood PCR results were negative for Bartonella spp. and B. burgdorferi. Continued
surveillance for wildlife diseases on Bald Head Island is necessary to determine
prevalence of specific pathogens, their impacts on the White-tailed Deer population, and
the risk of exposure to humans and pets.
Odocoileus virginianus Zimmerman (White-tailed Deer; hereafter also “Deer”)
are overabundant in many areas throughout their range and can often negatively
impact human populations (e.g., property damage, vehicle collisions, exposure
to zoonotic pathogens), particularly in suburban areas with expanding residential
development (Butfiloski et al. 1997). Epidemiologic surveillance can be useful
in identifying and managing zoonotic pathogens, and Deer can serve as effective
sentinels for diseases of economic and public health concern (Wolf et al. 2008).
Bartonellosis is a constellation of vector-transmitted (e.g., fleas, ticks, flies) bacterial
infections caused by Bartonella spp., which have the potential to affect
humans and a variety of animals, including Deer (Guptil 2010). Leptospirosis is a
bacterial zoonotic disease caused by spirochetes of the genus Leptospira that can
be transmitted through urine and tissue of infected carrier animals, and through
urine-contaminated water (Alder et al. 2011). Lyme disease and human granulocytotropic
anaplasmosis are tick-borne diseases associated, at least indirectly, with
1Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation
Biology Program, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27607. 2Department
of Environmental Studies, University North Carolina at Wilmington, Wilmington,
NC 28403. 3Environmental Medicine Consortium and Department of Clinical Sciences,
College of Veterinary Medicine, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27606.
*Corresponding author - firstname.lastname@example.org.
530 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 11, No.3
White-tailed Deer (Dugan et al. 2006, Lane et al. 1991). Borrelia burgdorferi, the
causative agent of Lyme disease, and Anaplasma phagocytophilum, the agent of
human granulocytotropic anaplasmosis, have been reported in regions where Ixodes
scapularis Say (formerly Ixodes dammini) (Black-legged Ticks) occur (Dugan
et al. 2006, Frank et al. 1998, Magnarelli et al. 2004). White-tailed Deer are important
hosts for the adult stage of Black-legged Ticks, and increased Deer density has
been shown to increase reproduction and density of these ticks (Magnarelli et al.
2004, Wilson et al. 1985). Additionally, research from Rhode Island noted that barrier
islands inhabited by Deer contained spirochete-infected Black-legged Ticks,
whereas neither ticks nor pathogens were detected on barrier islands not inhabited
by Deer (Anderson et al. 1987). Therefore, increased residential development in
areas of high Deer density, especially on barrier islands, could increase exposure
of humans and pets to zoonotic pathogens and create a heightened concern among
residents (Butfiloski et al. 1997).
Bald Head Island, NC (≈33°51'N, ≈77°59'W) is a 6.2-km2 barrier island
located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and is an affluent golf-course community.
Residential development began during the 1980s, and by 2009 there
were approximately 220 year-round residents on the island; however, each year,
the number of visitors to the island may exceed 100,000. By the early 2000s,
the number of Deer on Bald Head Island increased to approximately 80 Deer/
km2. As Deer and human density increased, concerns related to Deer impacts to
forested habitat, private property, and public health also increased. In response to
public concern, managers began a population-control program (i.e., annual culls)
in 2003 to reduce Deer numbers, and by 2008–2009 the estimated Deer population
was between 15–17 Deer/km2 (Sherrill et al. 2010). Therefore, we examined
movements and home ranges of female White-tailed Deer on Bald Head Island
and collected blood and serum samples to determine exposure of Deer to specific
pathogens that have implications for Deer and human health.
During January–March 2008 and January 2009, we captured White-tailed
Deer using a CO2-powered dart rifle (Model JM Standard, Dan-Inject, Inc.,
Børkop, Denmark) or a cartridge-fired dart rifle (Pneu-Dart, Williamsport,
PA) to collect blood samples to test for serological evidence of exposure to
B. burgdorferi, A. phagocytophilum, and Leptospira interrogans (serovars
bratislava, canicola, grippotyphosa, hardjo, icterohemorrhagica, and pomona)
and for DNA from Bartonella spp. and B. burgdorferi. We immobilized Deer
with an intramuscular injection of 4.4 mg/kg of Telazol® (1:1 tiletamine hydrochloride
and zolazepam hydrochloride; Fort Dodge Animal Health, Fort
Dodge, IA) and 2.2 mg/kg of XYLA-JECT® (xylazine hydrochloride, Phoenix
Pharmaceutical, Inc., St. Joseph, MO) (Kreeger et al. 2002, Sherrill et al. 2010).
We collected blood via jugular venipuncture to obtain a minimum of 10 ml to
be centrifuged for serum and 6 ml for whole-blood analysis. Serum samples
were centrifuged within 30 minutes after collection, and all samples were
frozen. Animal-handling methods used in this project were approved by the
2012 B.L. Sherrill, A.G. Snider, S. Kennedy-Stoskopf , and C.S. DePerno 531
Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (Approval Number 2007-017)
at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and followed guidelines approved
by the American Society of Mammalogist (Gannon et al. 2007).
We sent sera to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station to detect total
antibodies to strain 2591 and recombinant antigen VlsE1-HIS (VlsE) of B. burgdorferi,
and separate recombinant protein (p) 44 antigen of A. phagocytophilum
using a polyvalent enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) (Magnarelli et
al. 1999, 2004). Also, indirect fluorescent antibody (IFA) staining methods were
used to detect antibodies to strain NCH-1 of A. phagocytophilum (Magnarelli et
al. 1999). We sent serum samples to the Michigan State University Diagnostic
Center for Population and Animal Health to test for agglutinating antibodies
against Leptospira interrogans (serovars bratislava, canicola, grippotyphosa,
hardjo, icterohemorrhagica, and pomona) using a microscopic agglutination
test (MAT) (Cole et al. 1973). We sent whole blood samples to North Carolina
State University College of Veterinary Medicine to screen for Bartonella spp.
and B. burgdorferi using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analyses (Diniz et al.
2007, Maggi et al. 2010).
In 2008 (n = 8), we sampled 1 adult male along with 1 fawn, 1 yearling, and
5 adult females. In 2009 (n = 5), we sampled 1 fawn, 1 yearling, and 3 adult
females. All test results for Bartonella spp. and L. interrogans were negative.
One adult female in 2009 had an antibody titer of 320 to the p44 recombinant
A. phagocytophilum antigen. In 2008, the male was seropositive for both the p44
recombinant antigen and strain NCH-1 of A. phagocytophilum with antibody
titers of 256 and 320, respectively. All PCR results from whole-blood samples
were negative for B. burgdorferi; however, the male had an antibody titer of 640
for the VlsE-1 recombinant B. burgdorferi antigen. All antibody-positive and
-negative sera were retested to assess reproducibility of results.
In this study, we documented that White-tailed Deer on Bald Head Island
were exposed to A. phagocytophilum and B. burgdorferi, which provides
valuable information useful in continued disease surveillance. Based on our
results, we believe the current risk of human exposure to the select zoonotic
pathogens we tested in Deer is probably low. As Deer and/or vector density
fluctuates, the vulnerability of wildlife, humans, and pets to various pathogens
may change. Bald Head Island has a relatively high Deer density, and
changes in Deer density can impact vector populations (e.g., ticks), thereby
influencing the risk of exposure of residents and pets to potential zoonotic
diseases. Although Ixodes scapularis is the primary vector of Lyme disease
in much of the eastern United States, I. affinis may be more important
in the maintenance of enzootic cycles of Lyme borreliosis spirochetes in
the coastal regions of the Southeast (Harrison et al. 2010). Ixodes affinis is
532 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 11, No.3
widely distributed in the coastal plain of North Carolina, and recent research
documented a high incidence of Borrelia spp. in I. affinis collected in coastal
North Carolina, highlighting the potential importance of I. affinis in the maintenance
of the enzootic transmission cycle of B. burgdorferi in this region
(Maggi et al. 2010).
Although this was a small-scale study over a short period, we documented the
exposure of Deer on Bald Head Island to A. phagocytophilum and B. burgdorferi.
Future research should incorporate increased surveillance of White-tailed Deer,
determine the density of primary vectors of specific pathogens, and provide a
measure of relative risk of zoonotic disease exposure to wildlife, humans, and
pets on Bald Head Island.
This project was funded by the Village of Bald Head Island, North Carolina State University,
and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. We thank the undergraduate
and graduate students from NCSU and UNCW who volunteered on this project. In addition,
we thank the staff of the Bald Head Island Conservancy and numerous Bald Head
Island residents for their support.
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