The young lemur named Eugenius started to get sick. Very sick. He was lethargic, losing weight and suffering from diarrhea. Duke Lemur Center veterinarians soon pinpointed the cause of his illness: Eugenius tested positive for Cryptosporidium, a microscopic intestinal parasite known to affect people, pets, livestock and wildlife worldwide.
In humans, thousands of cases of Cryptosporidium are reported in the United States each year, spread primarily through contaminated water.
Since Eugenius was the first animal diagnosed in 1999, the parasite has caused periodic diarrhea outbreaks at the Duke Lemur Center. All of the infected animals are sifakas — the only lemur species out of 17 at the center known to fall prey to the parasite — and most of them were under age five when they got sick.
Despite various efforts to stop the infection, such as quarantining infected lemurs and decontaminating their enclosures, more than half of the sifakas living at the center have tested positive for crypto at some point. While most animals recover, the pattern has veterinarians puzzled over why the outbreaks persist.
Now, thanks to advances in next-generation sequencing technology, researchers are getting closer to understanding how these endangered animals fight the infection and detecting the illness early enough to minimize its spread.