Wolverines are elusive animals, and some wildlife biologists only see one in their entire career. Trappers in the north harvest animals like wolverines for their fur and the carcasses are now being used for research purposes.
Emily Jenkins, a professor in veterinary microbiology at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, and Rajnish Sharma, a U of S PhD graduate, have worked alongside wildlife biologists and veterinarians in the Yukon and Northwest Territories on a long-term project.
Trichinella is a parasite found in active muscles in the body, including the tongue and diaphragm. It’s contracted by consuming raw, infected meat, making wolverines susceptible to it because of their “anything goes” scavenger diet. Symptoms include muscle pain and fever.
Sharma developed a new genetic tool, helping him find a new form of the parasite.
“The sequence came back and it didn’t have any resemblance to the species we were expecting,” Jenkins said.
“The first reaction was, ‘well this is oddball, like what is this?'”
The name Oddball stuck around in the lab, but the scientific name is Trichinella chanchalensis. Ch’anchàłen Mountain, near the village of Old Crow, is incorporated in the name.
The scientists collaborated on the name with the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, who live where the infected wolverines were found. It’s also known more simply as T13, being the 13th form of Trichinella discovered.
“This is once in a lifetime, I think, to get a new species. We were really surprised because not only was the sequence new, it was really different from any of the species we expected to find,” Jenkins explained.
“There’s two other species in wolverine — T. nativa and T6. It was not closely related to them at all. In fact, we call it a new species, but it’s actually really an old species. It’s based on the phylogenetics the relationships to other species of Trichinella. It’s an old, old species so it’s been hiding.”
Between 70 and 80 per cent of the 470 wolverine carcasses analyzed were positive for Trichinella. Only 14 of the carcasses had traces of T13.
It’s unknown where it can be contracted geographically, but most likely is in colder climates.
“We’re quite suspicious that it actually came over from Russia across the land bridge,” Jenkins said.
“It should be in wildlife in Alaska and it should be in wildlife in eastern Siberia, and those are definitely places we are actively looking for samples right now.”
In the past, Trichinella was most commonly found in pigs. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says it has been eradicated in domesticated livestock through disease controlling methods.
It’s not known if a human can contract Trichinella. It would be unlikely since people would have to consume raw, infected meat to contract it.