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Research team at Moredun Institute explores red mites in poultry

A research grant worth nearly £500,000 has been awarded to the Moredun Research Institute to develop a novel way of studying poultry red mites.

22 September 2020, at 8:00am

Poultry red mites are parasites which need to feed on the blood of a bird to survive, develop and reproduce. Infestation of hen houses with poultry red mites is a major animal welfare and economic problem for the egg-producing industry internationally, and multiple groups worldwide are working to develop new control methods.

To supply mites for any research programme, donor hens must be infested with the parasite to provide sufficient numbers of mites for subsequent laboratory or field studies. The aim of the research funded by the £483,000 grant from the National Centre Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) is to establish a laboratory colony of red mites and develop a novel feeding method which removes the need to use infested hens.

Through a series of preliminary experiments, researchers have established that poultry red mites will feed on goose blood through a disposable synthetic skin-like membrane. Live geese are particularly suited to be blood donors for this task as they can supply approximately 30 times more blood than hens in a single donation. The donor geese are looked after and cared for under very high welfare standards in a dedicated blood-donor flock.

By using this system, it has been deduced that the number of hens used for the maintenance of poultry red mites could be reduced by 90 percent per year. In addition, welfare standards will be increased by removing the need for hens to be continuously infested with the parasites for prolonged periods.

This feeding method, designed by Moredun researchers in conjunction with Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland (BioSS), is both sustainable for the routine culturing of mites and can be scaled-up for the production of the large numbers of mites required for trials when required.

Dr Francesca Nunn, who this year received the prestigious International 3Rs Prize from the NC3Rs for work related to this study, says:

“This is an exciting project that not only has the potential to seriously reduce the numbers of experimental hens use in poultry red mite colony maintenance, but also increase our understanding of the feeding behaviour and population dynamics that will be greatly useful in future control strategies against this important parasite. I am thrilled to be working with the NC3Rs once more.”

Dr Alasdair Nisbet, Head of Vaccine and Diagnostic development and Principal Investigator of the study says:

“I’m delighted to be able to continue our work on reducing the numbers of hens used for poultry red mite research and refining our approaches in this area in partnership with the NC3Rs. We look forward to another 3 years of a high level of impact in these areas.”