Photograph by Paolo Marchetti, Nat Geo Image Collection
Photograph by Paolo Marchetti, Nat Geo Image Collection

What is it about mink and COVID-19?

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

The past few months have taught us that mink are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus. In what’s believed to be the first documented case of animal-to-human transmission, Dutch officials announced in May that a worker at a fur farm in the Netherlands seems to have gotten COVID-19 from a mink. In June, the country decided to shut down its mink fur farming industry—the fourth largest in the world—likely by the end of the year. The virus has since been found at mink farms in Spain and Denmark.

And now, the U.S.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced two mink farms in Utah reported “deaths in numbers they’d never seen before,” a USDA spokesperson told Science, in addition to several staff coming down with COVID-19. Nat Geo’s Dina Fine Maron tells me there’s no information yet on whether the virus spread from mink to humans or vice versa (that’ll require genetic testing, which is currently underway), and the USDA hasn’t shared whether it’s testing for the virus at any of the nation’s other 275 mink farms. (U.S. mink farms produce about three million mink pelts a year.)

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Hundreds of thousands of mink have already been culled in Europe (above, in the Netherlands) to help control spread of the virus, but there are no plans yet to cull the animals on U.S. farms. Maron discusses the situation further on this tweet thread.

That said, there’s still no evidence that animals—including mink—play a significant role in the spread of the virus. We do know that humans have occasionally spread the virus to animals, such as their pet dogs and tigers and lions at the zoo, but those cases too are extremely rare. Scientists are still trying to learn in which species the virus can not only take hold but also replicate.

What’s clear at this point? We need a lot more research.

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Your Instagram photo of the day

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I'll be back soon: A mother harp seal takes a look at her newborn before slipping back into the water, where it is much warmer than out in the open air. On a good ice year, there is a very high success rate for the survival of baby harp seals. During a bad ice year, as many as 70 percent of the baby seals do not survive because the ice melts out from under them, and they are forced into the water before they are ready, says photographer Paul Nicklen. “I am always humbled and awed by the resilience and dedication of mothers in some of the most extreme environments on this planet,” Nicklen says.

Related: Beautiful moments of animal mothers and their babies

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Today in a minute

The rescuers: After a powerful explosion wrecked part of Beirut, animal rescue groups are searching for buried animals to give them food, medical treatment, and maybe, a reunion with their owners. “Pets are like family members,” Dr. Amir Khalil, the mission’s leader, told People magazine. “That is why we will be searching and caring for surviving animals”—as well as vaccinating strays. The accidental explosion of long-stored ammonium nitrate on Aug. 4 killed at least 220 people and injured 5,000.

Open for hunting: A new federal move has opened up or expanded hunting and fishing at 147 national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, including parts of the Everglades and the Lower Rio Grande Valley. That means hunters will more easily be able to kill big game, migratory birds, and other animals, The Hill reports. Environmentalists said they would challenge the move. “This rule favors trophy hunters at the expense of the rest of us who love and appreciate bears, bobcats, and other animals,” said Collette Adkins of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Baby boom: For elephants, more rain means more vegetation for grazing—and eventually, more babies. At the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, Kenya’s Amboseli National Park is reporting a way-higher-than-usual 170 calves so far this year, including a rare set of twins. Anti-poaching efforts also are contributing to the boom, conservationists tell NPR.

Rhino court: In South Africa, however, criminal syndicates seem to be influencing judicial and bureaucratic structures. Their goal: To get away with poaching the nation’s declining number of rhinos, Laurel Neme reports for Nat Geo. Experts point to the abrupt closure last year of a special “rhino court,” which had a 100 percent conviction rate. Also sidelined: some of the most effective anti-poaching personnel, including specific rangers and investigators.

The big takeaway

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Homeward bound: Every spring, as many as 60,000 alewives (above)—a kind of river herring about 10 inches long—swim up Mill Brook to spawn in Highland Lake, near Portland, Maine. After their upstream migration (below), they will spawn and shortly after return to Casco Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The alewife run has been revived—after more than two centuries—following the removal of a dam on Mill Brook, James Prosek and Brian Skerry report.

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In a few words

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The last glimpse

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A confession: It’s hard for your curator to muster love for the eel, particularly when I realize it is the animal world’s strongest bioelectricity generator, able to shock at up to seven times a wall socket. So, no petting. But Nat Geo’s Diana Marques, in a multimedia examination, made me understand that the fish use electrical fields for defense, not just communication, navigation, and, um, hunting. I’m not saying I’m any less terrified after reading and seeing how eels hunt, but at least I know.

Subscriber exclusive: How eels shock their prey

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse and protection help from Kimberly Pecoraro. Have an idea, a link, a friendly encounter with an eel? We’d love to hear from you at . And thanks for reading.