What’s the story?
Humans create vaccines to help defend ourselves against diseases like rabies, influenza, and coronavirus. We also use vaccines to help protect our pets and livestock – cows, sheep, goats – from disease. Could we use vaccines to help endangered wildlife, too? Scientists are investigating that question for several species of animals that are threatened with extinction.
Two examples of vaccines for wildlife:
Black-tailed Prairie Dog. Image: Rhett A. Butler
Prairie dogs are the main diet of black-footed ferrets. Sometimes prairie dogs get plague, which they can then pass on to the endangered ferrets. So scientists developed a vaccine for plague that is sometimes delivered to prairie dog colonies using peanut butter!
Yellow-eyed penguin chicks have been hit hard by avian diphtheria. Image by Bernard Spragg. NZ via Flickr (CC0).
Yellow-eyed penguins in New Zealand are one of the world’s most endangered penguin species. These penguins can die from avian diphtheria, a bacterial infection that affects the penguins’ upper respiratory tract. Diphtheria kills many penguins each year.
Scientists have identified the bacterium causing diphtheria in the penguins. They are now working to develop a vaccine, but that work could take several years. Scientists will need to test the vaccine on chickens to make sure that it is safe for the yellow-eyed penguins.
They then need to find a way to inject the vaccine in wild penguins. It may be possible to inject mother penguins with the vaccine, and then the immunity against diphtheria would be transferred to the egg yolks of the eggs she lays.
The take-home message:
The long time and technical difficulties of creating vaccines, like for the yellow-eyed penguins, shows that vaccines are not a miracle cure for wildlife conservation. But, vaccines could play an important role in helping protect populations of some endangered species.