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Of Epidemic Proportion

African Lion

Are climate extremes killing lions in Africa? A team of biologists believe it's likely a significant factor.

Linda Munson of the University of California at Davis and colleagues studied two incidents in Tanzania. In 1994, a third of the lions in Tanzania's Serengeti region died from canine distemper virus.

In 2001, a similar epidemic struck lions in nearby Ngorongoro Crater.

That puzzled biologists as distemper rarely kills lions. So they examined lion blood samples, and learned that in high mortality years, samples from the affected areas included not only distemper, but also, high levels of the blood parasite, Babesia. Babesia comes from ticks that live on the lion's favorite meal, cape buffalo.

Climate records showed that 1994 and 2001 were wet years following severe droughts. Droughts stress the host animals while their ticks prosper. When the rains returned the tick populations explode, sometimes even killing the already weakened buffalo. Weak or dead buffalo provide lions abundant, but highly tick-infested meals.

Because distemper weakens a lion's immune system, the normally mild infection enables high parasite levels to affect an immunological "perfect storm."

The scientists say that as climate extremes increase so might these incidences.

Script by Bob Rhein