A polar bear has died after catching a strain of zebra herpes at a zoo in Germany.

Female polar bear, Jerka, was the first to die at the Zoological Gardens in Wuppertal, suffering seizures and frothing at the mouth after her brain swelled (encephalitis). Her male mate Lars, who was also infected, was saved by vets.

Leibniz-Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin extracted DNA from the brain of the dead bear showing that the virus was a form of equine herpes.

Zoo keepers were perplexed as to how the animals contracted the mystery virus, especially as the zebra house is 68 metres from the bear enclosure.

zebra

The zebra house is 68 metres away and the zookeepers that work with the animals do not work with the polar bears

Scientists have warned that the equine herpes virus may have developed the ability to jump species in the same way as flu.

Influenza can spread from pigs to birds to humans and is a very unstable virus. There are fears that this virus could be the same.

It is unclear how the mutated herpes virus was transported, as zoo keepers that work with zebras don’t work with bears. Scientists speculated that perhaps mice and rats could have carried the virus to the enclosure, but more research is necessary, Prof Klaus Osterrieder from the Free University Berlin told the BBC.

However emergence of a species-jumping virus could have a significant effect on zoos’ ability to preserve endangered species.

The close proximity of animals which would never be found together in the wild may have indirectly affected the spread of this illness. The report, published in Current Biology, writes that zoos may provide a breeding ground for such species jumping and called for zoo keepers to be vigilant.

"Zoos unintentionally provide pathogens with a high diversity of species from different continents and habitats assembled within a confined space.

"Institutions alert to the problem of pathogen spread to unexpected hosts can monitor the emergence of pathogens and take preventative measures."