ALBANY, N.Y. – Wildlife biologists tracking a tumor-causing virus first diagnosed in eastern wild turkeys five years ago have found the disease is far more widespread – but less deadly – than expected.

The virus had only been found in domestic turkeys in Europe and Israel before scientists at the University of Georgia found it in a tumor-riddled wild turkey from Arkansas in 2009.

A follow-up study found the virus in numerous healthy turkeys shot by hunters in 17 states from Colorado to Maine.

The prevalence rate of the virus was estimated at 30 to 80 percent, depending on location.

The virus can turn a turkey’s head into a mass of scabby tumors. The growths can also clog the airway and grow on vital organs. But the researchers found only a small number of infected birds develop tumors.