‘Tis the Season…for Deer Heads!


Photo: by Adrie Voors, Cohort II
At the Verona VDGIF office, Kate (left), teases out lymph nodes from a deer head. Chelsey Faller works on the back left, while Chelsey’s technician, Erin DeGuntis works on the right.


Fall is for white-tailed deer hunting, and since 2009 Virginia has seen a slow, steady spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) among its deer population. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) monitors this threat by testing the deer killed within two CWD containment/management areas covering a total of seven counties. While Frederick and Shenandoah counties have previously been the only ones with identified cases, in the fall of 2018 a deer killed in Culpeper county surprisingly tested positive for CWD. Not contiguous with the previous area, the Culpeper county case led to the establishment of the second management area covering Culpeper, Madison, and Orange counties.

For the past few years, HMNs have been invited to help collect samples from these deer to be sent to outside labs for testing. Kate Guenther, Cohort I, and I have spent some time at the Verona DGIF office this fall helping to process some of the hundreds of deer heads collected at processing facilities in the CWD management areas. Guided by DGIF wildlife disease biologist Chelsey Faller, we’ve learned how to locate and extract the retropharyngeal lymph nodes from the throat area. CWD’s rather elusive causative agent, a prion, has been found to accumulate in the poles of these fairly accessible lymph nodes so they serve as a convenient means of testing. So far there is no reliable test for CWD in live deer. Our duties also include filling out data cards, labeling and filling sampling envelopes and vials, and aging the deer by their teeth.

There are often other DGIF staff members around helping with the workload and we’ve enjoyed learning from them about DGIF related issues. (Did you know both porcupines and armadillos are now found in Virginia? Though not yet widespread, porcupines are migrating in from the north and armadillos from the west.)

Kate and I are both eagerly awaiting the results of this season’s monitoring efforts, which will get posted to the DGIF website. DGIF wildlife veterinarian Megan Kirchgessner says the spread of CWD through Virginia’s white-tailed deer population is fully predictable and DGIF containment efforts can only hope to slow it. Though this season is winding down, consider getting involved in this HMN approved project in 2020!

by Adrie Voors, Cohort II