A porcupine hangs out on the side of a dirt road in Otis in this July 2020 file photo. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Five porcupines were rushed to Acadia Wildlife in Bar Harbor in one week this fall with labored breathing and runny noses. Two died as they came in, and one soon after.

Concerned with what she saw, the wildlife center’s executive director, Ann Rivers, sent samples to experts at Cornell University in New York and the University of New Hampshire to try and figure out what was ailing — and killing — the porcupines.

What they saw was a disease that could wreak havoc on Maine’s porcupine population.

The porcupines were diagnosed with Skunk Adenovirus 1, or SkAdV-1. The virus was first seen in a skunk in Ontario in 2014 and since then it has been spotted in hedgehogs, foxes, raccoons and, of course, porcupines. Researchers are now teaming up with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, wildlife rehabilitators and trappers to further study the virus and which animals are most at risk.

“That is a remarkably wide array of families of animals to be infected within a four to five year period of time by a virus never seen before,” David Needle at the University of New Hampshire Diagnostics Lab said. He added that the speed at which the disease emerged and the number of species infected indicates that it is an emerging or newly mutated virus.

“The virus is pretty easy to see when it causes disease, and the folks that have described it in each site have been doing diagnostic pathology for a long time and wouldn’t have missed it, so it seems quite likely that this is legitimately a currently emerging disease.”

Researchers do not yet know how far the virus may have spread, Needle said, nor the virus’s “host,” or the primary infected species, though it appears to have mutated within different hosts.

The researchers plan to work with DIF&W, wildlife rehabilitators and trappers to answer basic questions about the disease, like in which species over which areas the virus is prevalent and what wild and domestic species are susceptible to infection.

“Some animals appear to recover from the disease, while others do not,” said Shevenell Webb, furbearer biologist at DIF&W.

The virus appears to be rather deadly in porcupines, but Rivers said that the bacterial infection associated with the virus can be healed and, even though there is no vaccine for porcupines, they can survive.

Acadia Wildlife obtained new medical equipment, including a large incubator with an oxygen concentrator and nebulizer to help any infected porcupines that might come their way.

“A lot of people are unable to notice when [porcupines are] ill,” Rivers said. “They’re not climbing trees when they’re ill. They’re spending day after day on the ground. People can really help — if they see one that’s sick, they can call me.”

Though it may be good news that the virus doesn’t mean a death sentence for porcupines, there’s still a lot unknown about the virus, including whether it can infect humans. Needle said that right now, it does not appear so, but researchers don’t know for sure yet.  

“Humans usually have a few handfuls of adenoviruses that colonize [and] infect them and do not cause disease, so it is not like we are naive to all adenoviruses,” Needle said.

“I’d be a fool to say there is no risk at all.”