Of moose and men: Study reveals an arthritis link

It’s seen as a sign of getting old,
but scientists have discovered that arthritis is not just a human problem, as a
study lasting 50 years reveals that moose suffer from an identical form of the
condition.

The research, published in Ecology
Letters journal, also casts new light on how malnutrition early in life can
lead to the disorder in both moose and humans. 

The study, which began in 1958, was
carried out on Isle Royale, a wilderness island national park in Lake Superior,
with only one large predator, the wolf, and one large prey species, the moose.
The research has involved three generations of scientists who have studied the
skeletal remains of more than 4,000 moose, mostly killed by wolves or harsh
winters.

“As the study entered its second
decade, there was increasing evidence of osteoarthritis in the moose
population,” said lead author Rolf Peterson from Michigan Technological
University. “Osteoarthritis is a crippling disease and is identical to that
found in humans. It is commonly believed to be caused by ‘wear and tear,’ but
the complex causes have remained poorly understood.”

In the Isle Royale population,
osteoarthritis is especially deadly as it prevents a moose from being able to
kick, or avoid a lunging wolf, meaning the disease is highly linked with moose
survival rates.

Over the course of the study, the
team discovered a rise in osteoarthritis as the moose population increased, and
a decrease when the population fell; leading to the idea that osteoarthritis is
linked to moose malnutrition when food is scarcer. The team found moose that
were malnourished when young would develop osteoarthritis in older age.

“We have shown how malnutrition
early in life increased the risk of osteoarthritis later in life, but this also
applies to humans as much as to a herd of moose in the wild,” said Mr.
Peterson.

“These findings cast new light on
how early humans first developed osteoarthritis,” said co-author Dr. Clark
Spencer Larsen, an anthropology expert from Ohio University. “The study of
human remains from archaeological contexts reveals osteoarthritis increased
where societies changed from foraging plants and animals to an increased
dependency on farming.”

Such changes were documented in a
mid-continental population of Native Americans 1000 years ago. In this group
arthritis increased by 65 per cent as society turned from foraging and hunting
to agriculture and the cultivation of maize.

“Initially the increase in
osteoarthritis was put down to increased joint stress due to the labour of
agriculture. However research now shows that, like the moose in Isle Royale,
nutritional deficiencies early in life may have been the main cause. Early malnutrition
was certainly a part of existence for many pre-historic human societies, and
remains a fact of life for millions of people across the world, so this study
is also relevant for modern human society.”

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