Red squirrels in the UK are having a pretty hard time at the moment.
As reported to the Daily Mail, the disease results in swelling in the animal’s snout, feet and ears, as well as hair loss, and wildlife officials in the United Kingdom are launching a study to figure out how it is being transmitted.
The major problem for the ruddy creatures is that their historic turf has been overrun by grey squirrels introduced from the United States. There are just an estimated 140,000 red squirrels left in the U.K., compared to some 2.5 million grey squirrels, according to England’s forestry commission.
Leprosy was first discovered in the U.K.’s red squirrels in Scotland in 2014, although experts think it has been around for a long time – perhaps hundreds of years — and simply gone undiagnosed.
According to Dorset Wildlife Trust, which will participate in the study, the leprosy bacteria is “widespread” among the squirrels but “neglible” in terms of risk to humans. Scientists with the organization aren’t sure yet how the disease is being transmitted among the squirrels.
Ground zero for the leprosy study will be Brownsea Island, a site thought to be a hotbed for the disease and one that will enable the scientists to study it in a contained setting.
Researches from the University of Edinburgh, alongside local wildlife managers from Brownsea Island, will conduct the study using humane traps. They’ll capture the animals long enough for blood tests and basic health exams to be administered, before returning them to the wild.