Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Tracking cougars with a virus bug

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What if your mom could tell where you'd been and who you'd been hanging out with after school, just by checking to see who else in your neighborhood also had the nasty cold you caught last week? That's the kind of snooping some scientists did recently when they wanted to know where cougars were living and roaming around in the western United States and Canada. The scientists used virus "bugs" living inside the big cats as tracking devices to figure out where the cougars have been living for the last 80 or so years, according to a new study in the 27 January issue of the journal Science.

Cougars have had a rough time in the west. At the beginning of the 20th century, humans hunted so many cougars and other animals that the cats almost went extinct. Then when people stopped hunting cougars and started protecting the places where they lived, cougar groups started to get bigger and spread out over the land again.

This was a pretty quick comeback for the cougars. So quick, in fact, that scientists can't study how different cougar groups have grown and spread out the way they normally would, by looking at cougar genes as they change over time. Genes are the little bits of information stored in your cells that give you your brown eyes or if you're a cougar, your black-tipped ears. Your parents pass on their genes to you when you're born, and sometimes they change a little bit when they're passed on.

But cougar genes change over hundreds of thousands of years, while the cougar's comeback story takes place in less than 100 years. So Roman Biek of the University of Montana in Missoula and his fellow researchers looked around for another way to spy on the cougars. They looked at changes in a virus bug called FIV that the cougars carry around. FIV doesn't hurt the cats, but they can pass it to other cougars like you can pass on your cold to your friends. And FIV's genes change really fast. By looking at changes in FIV and checking to see which groups of cougars had certain kinds of FIV in their blood, the scientists figured out how cougars were taking back their territory in the West.

Biek says scientists could use bugs to track other endangered animals. But let's hope your mom doesn't find out about this!