In the wild, chimpanzees face any number of dire threats, ranging from poachers to predators to deforestation.
That’s why scientists, investigating an outbreak of respiratory disease in a community of wild chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kibale National Park, were surprised and dismayed to discover that a human “common cold” virus known as rhinovirus C was killing healthy chimps.
“This was an explosive outbreak of severe coughing and sneezing,” says Tony Goldberg, a professor in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine and one of the senior authors of a report documenting the event. The report was published online today (Dec. 13, 2017) in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
“It was completely unknown that rhinovirus C could infect anything other than humans,” says Goldberg, referencing a two-year-old chimp named Betty, who succumbed to the virus and whose body was quickly recovered and autopsied after her death. “It was surprising to find it in chimpanzees, and it was equally surprising that it could kill healthy chimpanzees outright.”