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Student Research Spotlight - Hannah Greenberg

Posted: April 22, 2019

This is the 5th of eight short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Mangy madness: Sarcoptic mange in Pennsylvania  
By Makaylee Crone

Deep in the Pennsylvania woods there are creatures that resemble an alien species. These skinny creatures crawl through the forest, missing clumps of hair and skin! These “alien” creatures are black bears infected with a deadly disease, sarcoptic mange. Sarcoptic mange is a skin disease that results from mites burrowing into an animal's skin and laying eggs. The animal will develop a hypersensitivity reaction, causing skin irritation, skin thickening, and hair loss.  Animals can undergo substantial weight loss as much of their energy is diverted to scratching irritated areas on the body.

Pennsylvania black bear mange cases have begun to rise in incidence over the past decade, causing the Pennsylvania Game Commission and neighboring state wildlife management units to become increasingly concerned. It has become apparent that researchers need to find treatment options for black bears. Cue to Hannah Greenberg, an entomology PhD student and Penn State’s resident black bear wrangler.

Greenberg stated, “No one really knows why this is happening. Why are there more cases now, and why are they more severe? How do black bears even manage to pick up mange when they are typically solitary, and mange in other wildlife is spread by animal interaction? These are just a few of the questions we’re trying to answer in order to more effectively manage sarcoptic mange.”

Hannah’s team responds to PA Game Commision reports of bears infected with mange to test the effectiveness of Ivermectin, a common mange treatment for domestic animals. Bears are tranquilized to collect skin samples and confirm disease presence in the field. This is done by examining skin samples under a microscope for the presence of mites. When there is a confirmed case of mange, the bear will be given a GPS collar and placed in an experimental trial with two other individuals. These groups consist of a mangy bear that does not receive treatment, a mangy bear that receives treatment, and a healthy bear.

Bears will then be tracked with the GPS collar to follow up on treatment efficacy.  A Pennsylvania bear that was treated in June of 2018 was found in upstate New York in October with a full coat of fur and an additional 100 pounds on his previously lean frame. While this was only one case, this amazing story shows the potential for a complete recovery from mange. In the near future, wildlife managers could have a strategy for more effectively managing black bear populations, and we may see an end to this mangy madness.

Greenberg is passionate about her research and stated: “Going out into the field to collar the bears and collect samples is by far the best part of my research. Not only do I get up close and personal with black bears (and any other critters that decide to stop by, like coyote pups!), I am surrounded by people fueled by a passion for wildlife and the work they do. There is never a dull day in the field and I always return teeming with new-found knowledge.”