Deer Carcass Decomposition and Potential Scavenger Exposure to Chronic Wasting Disease



ABSTRACT  Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy afflicting the Cervidae family in North America, causing neurodegeneration and ultimately death. Although there are no reports of natural cross-species transmission of CWD to noncervids, infected deer carcasses pose a potential risk of CWD exposure for other animals. We placed 40 disease-free white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) carcasses and 10 gut piles in the CWD-affected area of Wisconsin (USA) from September to April in 2003 through 2005. We used photos from remotely operated cameras to characterize scavenger visitation and relative activity. To evaluate factors driving the rate of carcass removal (decomposition), we used Kaplan-Meier survival analysis and a generalized linear mixed model. We recorded 14 species of scavenging mammals (6 visiting species) and 14 species of scavenging birds (8 visiting species). Prominent scavengers included American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), raccoons (Procyon lotor), and Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana). We found no evidence that deer consumed conspecific remains, although they visited gut piles more often than carcasses relative to temporal availability in the environment. Domestic dogs, cats, and cows either scavenged or visited carcass sites, which could lead to human exposure to CWD. Deer carcasses persisted for 18 days to 101 days depending on the season and year, whereas gut piles lasted for 3 days. Habitat did not influence carcass decomposition, but mammalian and avian scavenger activity and higher temperatures were positively associated with faster removal. Infected deer carcasses or gut piles can serve as potential sources of CWD prions to a variety of scavengers. In areas where surveillance for CWD exposure is practical, management agencies should consider strategies for testing primary scavengers of deer carcass material.