Evidence for Strain-Specific Immunity to Pneumonia in Bighorn Sheep

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The Journal of Wildlife Management






The Wildlife Society

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Transmission of pathogens commonly carried by domestic sheep and goats poses a serious threat to bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) populations. All‐age pneumonia die‐offs usually ensue, followed by asymptomatic carriage of Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae by some of the survivors. Lambs born into these chronically infected populations often succumb to pneumonia, but adults are usually healthy. Surprisingly, we found that introduction of a new genotype (strain) of M. ovipneumoniae into a chronically infected bighorn sheep population in the Hells Canyon region of Washington and Oregon was accompanied by adult morbidity (100%) and pneumonia‐induced mortality (33%) similar to that reported in epizootics following exposure of naïve bighorn sheep. This suggests an immune mismatch occurred that led to ineffective cross‐strain protection. To understand the broader context surrounding this event, we conducted a retrospective analysis of M. ovipneumoniae strains detected in 14 interconnected populations in Hells Canyon over nearly 3 decades. We used multi‐locus sequence typing of DNA extracts from 123 upper respiratory tract and fresh, frozen, and formalin‐fixed lung samples to identify 5 distinct strains of M. ovipneumoniae associated with all‐age disease outbreaks between 1986 and 2014, a pattern consistent with repeated transmission events (spillover) from reservoir hosts. Phylogenetic analysis showed that the strain associated with the outbreak observed in this study was likely of domestic goat origin, whereas strains from other recent disease outbreaks probably originated in domestic sheep. Some strains persisted and spread across populations, whereas others faded out or were replaced. Lack of cross‐strain immunity in the face of recurrent spillovers from reservoir hosts may account for a significant proportion of the disease outbreaks in bighorn sheep that continue to happen regularly despite a century of exposure to domestic sheep and goats. Strain‐specific immunity could also complicate efforts to develop vaccines. The results of our study support existing management direction to prevent contacts that could lead to pathogen transmission from domestic small ruminants to wild sheep, even if the wild sheep have previously been exposed. Our data also show that under current management, spillover is continuing to occur, suggesting that enhanced efforts are indicated to avoid introducing new strains of M. ovipneumoniae into wild sheep populations. We recommend looking for new management approaches, such as clearing M. ovipneumoniae infection from domestic animal reservoirs in bighorn sheep range, and placing greater emphasis on existing strategies to elicit more active cooperation by the public and to increase vigilance on the part of resource managers. © 2016 The Wildlife Society.