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Red Wolves May Help Understanding of Human Eye Disease

Dr. Mowat (left) examines the eyes of a red wolf restrained by Dr. Kennedy-Stoskopf (right)
Dr. Mowat (left) examines the eyes of a red wolf restrained by Dr. Kennedy-Stoskopf (right)

The red wolf reintroduction has generated knowledge that has facilitated many other predator conservation efforts through the publication of innovative techniques and basic science in the scientific literature. Now it appears that the careful work with the red wolf may help us better understand an array of eye diseases that affect as many as 1.8 million people in the United States.

Dr. Freya Mowat, a board certified veterinary ophthalmologist and researcher who recently joined NC State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the Environmental Medicine Consortium, is an expert on inherited diseases of the canid retina. Dr. Brian Gilger, leader of the NC State Veterinary Hospital ophthalmology service, realized Dr. Mowat was the obvious person for Dr. Suzanne Kennedy-Stoskopf to contact when students in the Zoological Teaching Animal Unit Wild Carnivore Team reported one of the wolves was showing signs of an eye problem.

A former large animal practitioner in England before taking on the challenge of PhD and residency training to study eye disease, Dr. Mowat did not hesitate joining in on the examination of the wolf on a cold and rainy day. Her careful examination revealed the male wolf appeared to have a degenerative retinal condition that was first reported in the literature by former NC State graduate student Dr. Anne Ballman (ne- Acton) in a review of red wolf pathology findings she published while a student at the University of Tennessee.

The condition has been mentioned briefly in two early red wolf recovery documents but work on the pathogenesis and genetic basis of the disease has been limited. This is in part because the disease affects wolves later in their lives and has not been identified as affecting their productivity or success in the wild during their main reproductive years.

Dr. Mowat recognized the potential value of understanding the red wolf condition as it relates to diseases found in domestic dogs and those of humans. She was eager to examine additional wolves, which is how she found herself in sub-zero weather looking at the eyes of a dozen wolves being held at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina.

Dr. Kennedy-Stoskopf and six students in the Wild Carnivore Team were headed to Sandy Ridge and Columbia, NC to conduct the annual physical examinations of the wolves in captivity. Dr. Mowat packed a portable ophthalmological exam kit that could work without electrical power and joined the team on two cold and blustery days. It was a great opportunity for the students to work with some of the most experienced wolf biologists in the world and learn their techniques for catching and restraining the animals. The students, Katie Cassady, Haley Gunter, Paige Harrelson, Hannah Gardner Marvin, and Doug Margarucci also learned a few things about working animals in sub-zero temperatures.

The team did not realize that two of the wolves to be examined were the parents of the wolf Dr. Mowat had examined earlier in December. He was one of the pups in the famous pair’s only litter. Known as Betty and Hank, the rather elderly parents have lived near the visitor center in Columbia for many years and are well known to local residents and featured in many red wolf photos.

As it turned out, Hank, the father of the NC State wolf, has visual challenges and Dr. Mowat was able to document his retinal dysplasia. Blood samples from the 12 wolves that were examined along with samples from the seven wolves managed by the Wild Carnivore Team will help Dr. Mowat understand the genetics and the pathogenesis of the red wolf condition. This a critical step towards evaluating the usefulness of an endangered species model of an important group of human eye diseases.

Reposted from an article written by Dr. Michael Stoskopf, professor of aquatics, wildlife, and zoological medicine and Director of the Environmental Medicine Consortium for the EMC web page.