Metabolic bone disease has been reported in free-living red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) in the United Kingdom but the prevalence of this disease is unknown. In this study the bone quality of free-living red squirrels in the UK was assessed by radiology and bone densitometry. The study comprised 20 red squirrels found dead and submitted to the Zoological Society of London (UK) between 1997 and 1998, 10 were from the Isle of Wight (IoW), where gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are absent, and 10 were from Cumbria (Cu), where gray squirrels are present. Gray squirrels are considered potential competitors for red squirrels. Radiologic evaluation of humerus, femur, tibia, radius, and ilium revealed a slightly lower bone density and thinner cortices in red squirrels from the IoW when compared with those from Cu. Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry was used to measure bone mineral content and density of the isolated right humerus and femur of 19 of the 20 red squirrels. The bone densitometry study reinforced the radiographic findings. The IoW specimens had lower bone mineral density values, although statistical significance (P<0.05) between animals from the IoW and Cu was only reached for the proximal epiphysis of the femur and between males from the IoW and males from Cu for the proximal epiphysis of the humerus. A highly positive correlation (r>0.94) was found when the bone mineral content and density between the femur and the humerus among groups and within each group were compared, showing a uniform level of mineralization between upper and lower limbs. These findings suggested generalized bone loss for the IoW red squirrels that may be compatible with some degree of osteopenia. Within the wide range of causes that lead to osteopenia, malnutrition (especially protein deficiency), calcium and copper deficiencies, and genetic factors remain as possible etiologies.
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Vol. 40 • No. 3