What’s in YOUR freezer?

Jennifer Peaslee
Niki Dean
September 20, 2018

Most of us have forgotten bags of vegetables and mystery meat “stuffs” hanging out in our freezers. Here at the CWHL we also have freezers full strange things, but we won’t be using them for dinner anytime soon. When the New York State Wildlife Health Program (WHP) began in 2011 one of the top priorities was to bank (store) samples, like swabs, tissues and blood, from wildlife cases to use for future disease investigation or research. Many of the animals examined by the WHP are not common or very hard to access (like bald eagles, porcupines, bobcats, rattlesnakes, and Eastern hellbenders). This makes it very important to take those opportunities to collect samples when anyone handles an animal in the field or one comes into the lab for necropsy (animal autopsy).

Bald eagle high in the trees

We have many uses for these samples. When we identify a new disease like LPDV, we need to know things like how long it’s been around, what species are infected and where it is geographically. We may need hundreds or even thousands of samples to answer these questions- and most of our “clients” aren’t keen to cooperate, or may disappear for months at a time, hibernating or migrating. We have shared samples with researchers that are using genetics to track the movements and relatedness of different wildlife populations.  Our laboratory has developed a number of new tests for diseases that are unique to wildlife, and is developing others that will allow us to even detect some wildlife from water samples. For all of these applications, we can turn to the archive.

The value of this archive also means it is tightly inventoried and carefully monitored. Our specialized freezers maintain temperatures as cold as -80°F (most home freezers are at 0°F) and have wired temperature alarms that can alert us in the middle of the night if there is a problem. Every sample is carefully labelled- or even barcoded- and its freezer location is mapped in our database to make it easier to find.

Because of the time and money required, it’s rare for wildlife samples to be saved for any length of time. This is unfortunate, since historical samples can have enormous impact on our understanding of changes in disease or species over time. Luckily, many of our fellow researchers have saved valuable samples from species they’ve worked with over the years, so next to the native wildlife are African lions, sea stars, tigers, cheetahs, hyenas, and even some penguins. Our lab will also sometimes archive the bacteria, viruses, and parasites that hitch a ride on these species for further study– we are always thinking ahead at the CWHL.