Researchers at Washington State University have established a link between elk hoof disease and asymmetrical antler growth.
According to an article published in the journal Wildlife Management, researchers from the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine found that bull elk with the disease, as evidenced by lesions and abnormal growth on their hooves, were 16% more likely to have asymmetrical antlers.
The researchers combed through more than 1,600 hunter harvest reports submitted to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife by elk hunters in Western Washington from 2016 to 2018.
“Hunters reported seeing more elk with abnormal antlers in areas where there was a lot of hoof disease and they just kept asking the question: What is going on here?” said the study’s lead author, Margaret Wild, a WSU wildlife veterinarian, in a news release. “What we saw in these harvest reports was confirmation that if the elk had foot abnormalities, they were much more likely to have asymmetrical antlers.”
Wild and her team previously established that elk hoof disease, officially known as treponeme-associated hoof disease, can be spread to healthy elk through contact with contaminated soil.
The disease was first documented in Western Washington in 2000 and is most heavily concentrated around Mount St. Helens. It has moved eastward and has now been found in Oregon and north central Idaho.
The abnormal growth of hooves often causes lameness and leads to death. Wild was hired through special funding from the Washington Legislature to research the disease.
According to the news release, 65% of bulls with six points on one side had asymmetrical antlers when hoof abnormalities were present.
Researchers have long known that leg injuries in deer and elk can lead to abnormal or asymmetric antler growth. But those injuries are random. The disease has the ability to affect a larger number of animals, especially in the hardest-hit areas.
“Abnormal antlers could influence reproductive success,” Wild said. “Antlers also influence the value people put on elk because they like to see bulls that are big and symmetrical. These are just more reasons why we need to figure out how to manage hoof disease.”
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