Surprise findings about an itchy skin complaint plaguing wombats and koalas have scientists scratching their heads.
But the researchers could also help contain the potentially deadly mange and stop it threatening other animals, including endangered species.
PhD candidate Tamieka Fraser from the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) gathered skin samples from wild marsupials.
Her genetic research has found the potential origins of sarcoptic mange — caused by mites that burrow into the skin. The disease is highly infectious and can kill if left untreated.
The debilitating disease starts with intense itching and affects a majority of bare-nosed and southern hairy-nosed wombat populations in southern states.
“It was tremendously sad to see animals suffering in the wild but it was exhilarating to be working to help them,” says Fraser.
Fraser and her team studied the genomes of mites obtained from skin scrapings from wild wombats and koalas in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales.
“We found that the mites in both wombats and koalas were closely related to each other and showed no signs of geographic or host separation.”
The pesky parasite responsible closely resembled mites bothering other hosts in some unexpected locations – from buffalo in Egypt to dogs in America, China and Japan.
“The evidence suggests the mite may have been introduced to Australian wildlife by animals from overseas on multiple occasions since European settlement,” Fraser says.
The project will study wild dogs and foxes next, gathering new ammunition to stop the highly contagious mange spreading, including to endangered northern hairy nosed wombats in Queensland.
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