Red squirrels in the British Isles are infected with leprosy bacilli

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Science  11 Nov 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6313, pp. 744-747
DOI: 10.1126/science.aah3783

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British squirrels infected with leprosy

With the exception of armadillos in the Americas, leprosy infections are considered almost exclusively restricted to humans. Avanzi et al. examined warty growths on the faces and extremities of red squirrels in the British Isles and found that two species of leprosy-causing organisms were to blame (see the Perspective by Stinear and Brosch). Mycobacterium leprae in the southern population of Brownsea Island squirrels originated from a medieval human strain. M. lepromatosis was found in red squirrels from elsewhere in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Human leprosy is proving hard to eradicate, despite available drugs. Perhaps other wildlife species are also reservoirs for this stubborn disease.

Science, this issue p. 744; see also p. 702


Leprosy, caused by infection with Mycobacterium leprae or the recently discovered Mycobacterium lepromatosis, was once endemic in humans in the British Isles. Red squirrels in Great Britain (Sciurus vulgaris) have increasingly been observed with leprosy-like lesions on the head and limbs. Using genomics, histopathology, and serology, we found M. lepromatosis in squirrels from England, Ireland, and Scotland, and M. leprae in squirrels from Brownsea Island, England. Infection was detected in overtly diseased and seemingly healthy animals. Phylogenetic comparisons of British and Irish M. lepromatosis with two Mexican strains from humans show that they diverged from a common ancestor around 27,000 years ago, whereas the M. leprae strain is closest to one that circulated in Medieval England. Red squirrels are thus a reservoir for leprosy in the British Isles.

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