Researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin said they’re still not certain how the bear got zebra herpes, but speculated that it may have been carried by a mouse or rat from a zebra enclosure hundreds of feet away.
They were alarmed to find evidence of a mutated version of equine herpes had managed to transfer itself into polar bears, saying that they don’t know how many species the virus might be able to infect. They warned that zoos can “unintentionally provide pathogens with a high diversity of species from different continents and habitats” to adapt to.
“The virus may cause fatal encephalitis and infects at least five mammalian orders, apparently without requiring direct contact with infected animals,” they concluded.
In the case of the most recent dead polar bear, a female named Jerka, the disease triggered a brain-swelling condition that killed her. Scientists said they also tested samples from another polar bear that died years prior and found evidence of the same mutant virus.
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