updated 8/22/2007 12:24:57 PM ET 2007-08-22T16:24:57

Scientists are looking at the impact of a population of feral cats roaming Mauna Kea on the Big Island. There's no count of the cats that have been found as high as the 10,000-foot elevation on the mountain's west slope, but researchers say they prey on birds and could pose a danger to humans because of the diseases they carry.

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Many of the wild cats are believed to carry multiple diseases, including toxoplasmosis, which could raise concern if they start blending into feral cat populations nearer to residential areas. Toxoplasmosis, a protozoan parasite, can cause severe illness in fetuses and adults with immune system weaknesses.

The U.S. Geological Survey's Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center on the nearby erupting volcano of Kilauea has been studying the cats, the diseases they carry and their danger to wild birds, including ground-nesting seabirds, forest birds and protected Hawaiian geese, or nene.

Most of the cats are believed to wander between the 6,500- and 9,000-foot levels, so they do not pose an immediate danger of spreading disease to Big Island residents. Scientists say they would, however, if they start mixing with domestic cats in populated areas.

The high disease rate is explained by the fact that the wild cats eat infected mice or birds, such as native crows that have picked at mice carcasses.

"A mouse gets it, and then the cat eats the mouse, and that's how the cycle goes on," Arlene Buchholz, a veterinarian with the state Department of Health, told The Honolulu Advertiser which reported the Mauna Kea cat problem in its Tuesday editions.

Paul Banko, wildlife biologist, said the feral cats also suffer from feline leukemia and immunodeficiency virus, a cat version of HIV.

But the major danger posed by the cats is to wildlife, Banko said, with evidence provided by cameras set up to monitor bird nests. Cats have been caught killing palila forest bird chicks, he said.

"They're killing just about every species that's up there," he said.

Cats have been prowling the mountain for many generations, researchers said, with reports of feral felines on the Big Island going back to 1842.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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