Mysterious Elk Deaths Plague New Mexico
An elk gets a drink from a BLM watering hole.
Credit: Bureau of Land Management Colorado

Officials with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish are puzzling over the mysterious deaths of more than 100 elk, apparently all within a 24-hour period, in rural New Mexico.

The elk were found Aug. 27 on a 75,000-acre ranch north of the city of Las Vegas.

Livestock deaths, by themselves, are not unusual — there are many things that can fell large animals, including predators, poachers, a natural or man-made toxin, disease, drought, heat, starvation, and even lightning. [Spooky! Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena]

But so far wildlife officials have seemingly ruled out most of these possibilities: The elk weren't shot (nor taken from the area), so it was not poachers. Tests have come back negative for anthrax, a bacteria that exists naturally in the region and can kill large animals. There seems to be no evidence of any heavy pesticide use in the area that might have played a role in the die-off.

Though lightning strikes are not uncommon in the Southwest and in New Mexico specifically, killing over 100 animals at one time would be an incredibly rare event. It might be an as-yet unidentified disease, though killing so many at once — and so quickly — would be very unusual. Another possibility is some sort of contamination of the well or water tanks, but so far no toxins have been identified.

Wildlife officials are hopeful that they will be able to identify the cause of death — if for no other reason that it would give peace of mind to ranchers and hunters.

Mass animal deaths are not uncommon. In just the past few weeks, massive die-offs of various animals have made news around the world. China's Fuhe River was clogged last week with over 100 tons of dead silvery fish. Officials attributed the deaths to toxic levels of ammonia dumped into the river from a local chemical factory. Around the same time, scientists finally solved the riddle of what had mysteriously begun to kill off a type of salamander in the Netherlands beginning in 2010. The culprit turned out to be Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, a contagious fungus that eats the salamander's skin.

Odd livestock attacks also abound. Last December, an unknown animal attacked livestock in Shelby County, Ky., leaving many of the victims with gnawed or detached ears, including a goat named Polka-dot. In 2010, the Hispanic vampire beast el chupacabra (of course, never proven to exist) was blamed by some for the deaths of more than 300 goats in rural Mexico. The real cause: Officials found feral canines were the real culprits.

Whatever killed the New Mexico elk was apparently neither a chemical spill nor a flesh-eating fungus, though the deaths remain a genuine mystery, at least so far. Tissue and blood samples are still being analyzed, and scientists hope to have answers soon.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries" and "Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking." His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

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