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Researchers In England Uncovered A Strain Of Leprosy In The Remains Of A Medieval-Era Red Squirrel, Suggesting This Species May Have Once Contributed To The Disease’s Spread

Antonioguillem - stock.adobe.com - illustrative purposes only, not the actual squirrel

In England, evidence of a strain of leprosy has been uncovered in a red squirrel from the medieval period.

The strain was similar to what humans were suffering from at the time, suggesting that squirrels may have spread leprosy to humans and vice versa. The study was published in the journal Current Biology.

Leprosy is one of the oldest diseases that have been documented in human history. Infections are primarily caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae and M. lepromatosis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leprosy does not spread between people very easily. It requires close, prolonged contact with an infected individual. The disease can result in skin lesions, nerve damage, hair loss, blindness, and a number of other symptoms.

Today, leprosy is rare in the United States. But, each year, more than 200,000 cases occur in Africa, Asia, and South America.

In the past, it was believed that only humans could catch the disease, but in the 1970s, scientists discovered infected armadillos in the Americas.

Later on, chimpanzees in West Africa and modern red squirrels in Britain were found to have been infected as well. Now, researchers have also identified leprosy in medieval red squirrels.

Back then, humans and squirrels lived in much closer proximity to each other. For one, squirrel fur was commonly used in the High and Late Middle Ages for lining garments. Additionally, the rodents were kept as pets and would climb on people’s laps and shoulders.

The authors of the study examined archaeological remains of red squirrels from medieval Winchester, England. That area was well-known for its squirrel fur trade, making it a place filled with plenty of opportunities for leprosy to jump between squirrels and humans.

Antonioguillem – stock.adobe.com – illustrative purposes only, not the actual squirrel

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