North

Researchers find new parasite species in northern wolverines

Rajnish Sharma, a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan, did what a lot of researchers dream of — he helped discover a new species. It's a parasite found in wolverines in Yukon and the N.W.T.

'I was super excited when I came to know that, oh man, it is something new,' researcher says

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan have identified a previously-unrecognized species of the Trichinella parasite, in northern wolverines. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Canadian Press)

Rajnish Sharma, a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan, did what a lot of researchers dream of — he helped discover a new species.

It's a parasite that he and his research partners found in wolverines from Yukon and the N.W.T.

"I was super excited when I came to know that, oh man, it is something new," he said.

Sharma is a PhD student in veterinary microbiology, and he was studying the Trichinella parasite in northern wolverines. The two territories' environment departments helped Sharma's efforts, and local trappers supplied him with samples.

Trichinella is a relatively common species of parasitic roundworm. Sharma says there were 12 known species or genotypes — and two of them are most commonly found in the northern mammals.

Sharma collected tongue and diaphragm samples from wolverines, to do genome sequencing of any Trichinella found. 

He ended up finding a Trichinella species he didn't recognize — and nicknamed it "oddball."

'I was super excited when I came to know that, oh man, it is something new,' said researcher Rajnish Sharma. (Jeanette Neufeld/University of Saskatchewan)

"It was different from all 12 species, so then we came to know that oh, it's ... something really odd from the rest of the species. That's why we called it, when we saw that result first time, we started calling it 'oddball,'" he said.

"It was not related genetically to the rest of the 12 species."

Sharma says the new species — now labelled Trichinella chanchalensis (T13) has likely been in the Canadian North for a long time, it just hadn't been identified.

"Right now, our hypothesis is that this species might have moved from Russia, from the Beringia," he said, referring to the land bridge that once connected Russia and Alaska.       

He and the other researchers also tested foxes and wolves for the parasite, but it was only detected in wolverines. Sharma said that may be because they had more wolverine samples.

Coiled up larvae of Trichinella from the tongue muscle of a wolverine. (Rajnish Sharma)

He doesn't believe the parasite poses any real risk to Yukon's wolverine population, or any other species. 

Humans can acquire trichenellosis (or trichinosis), a potentially fatal disease, from consuming Trichinella larvae in raw or undercooked meat. In Canada, trichinellosis is most commonly acquired from undercooked bear or walrus meat

Wolverines are not typically hunted for food in the North. 

Sharma says he wants to continue studying T13, to determine how widespread it is in Canada.

"I'm still excited, to see a lot of research on this new parasite," he said. 

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