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Urban legend or real life monster? 'U' biologist solves the case of the chupacabra

BY DAVID BUCCILLI
Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 16, 2010

The wolf-like, bat-like, snake-like, bear-like, gargoyle-Gollum creature from Hell that sucks the blood out of chickens and goats has been identified. Turns out, it’s a coyote with scabies, according to a University biologist, who studied the animal.

Biology Prof. Barry O’Connor said in an interview that the chupacabra is most likely a coyote infested with Sarcoptic mange. The legend of the chupacabra started from a variation of reports in 1995 in Puerto Rico, where balding, bipedal creatures with spikes on their backs were cited killing livestock by sucking their blood dry.

“Any legend probably has some basis in fact,” O’Connor said, adding that the original source of the legend in Puerto Rico was probably a feral monkey infected with mange.

When the legend moved from Puerto Rico to mainland Latin America, the identity of the chupacabra changed with location, O’Connor said.

“The characteristics and description in Mexico at times live up with characteristics of dogs described with having mange,” he said.

The legend people in most of Mexico and South America are familiar with describes the chupacabra as four-legged, scaly, rancid smelling and fanged — much like the description of a coyote with mange.

“Mange is a skin disease caused by a mite,” O’Connor said. “When the mite burrows in the skin, the skin thickens. Hair falls out.”

The infected coyote’s scabbing body develops “a bacterial infection that makes the animal smell bad,” and “their face skin swells, pulls back,” making their teeth appear more prominent, according to O’Conner.

O’Connor also noted that chupacabra translates to “goat sucker” in Spanish, which probably comes from an exaggeration of the notion that chupacabras mainly prey on livestock. It’s likely that the severely-infected coyote subsists mainly on livestock because the disease is “quite debilitating,” making it difficult for them to hunt down their prey, O’Connor said.

Wild animals typically catch the mange-causing mite from dogs, O’Connor said, though humans aren’t at much of a risk.

“In terms of being able to transmit mite bacteria to humans, there is a possibility of that,” he said. “It’s not common.”

He added that experiments show it’s not easy to transmit the mite from a dog to a human.

Though the mite can also cause human scabies, O’Connor said humans don’t develop symptoms as severe as those experienced by coyotes or dogs because humans have had millions of years to co-evolve with the parasite.

“When a parasite moves on to a new host and is able to survive, it’s often very damaging to that organism,” he said.

Through domestication, dogs have had thousands of years to co-evolve with Sarcoptic mange, so they’re not at as high of a risk as wild animals of becoming severely infected. But now, new species like the feral monkeys and coyotes are being exposed to the parasite, O’Connor said.

With the spread of mites between species, places like Australia could soon have their own version of the chupacabra.

“There’s a mite problem in wombats that they caught from dingoes,” O’Connor said.

But will the legendary creature make its may to Ann Arbor?

“Right now in Ann Arbor we’re seeing a lot of cases of Sarcoptic mange in red foxes. It’s often fatal, as we see in coyotes,” he said.

“We found a dead, mangy fox here on North Campus,” O’Connor added.