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Grant from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will fund study of disease transmission in apes

Oct. 24, 2011

Writer: Beth Gavrilles, bethgav@uga.edu

Contact: Julie Rushmore, rushmore@uga.edu

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has awarded a grant to UGA researchers studying social and ecological factors that affect disease transmission in wild chimpanzees. This is the second grant the scientists have received from the USFWS Division of International Conservation for their work.

Julie Rushmore, a joint Ph.D. and DVM candidate in UGA’s Odum School of Ecology and College of Veterinary Medicine, working with Associate Professor of Ecology Sonia Altizer, has been studying the relationship between social behavior and disease transmission in chimpanzees in Uganda since 2007.

Rushmore has spent more than 1,000 hours observing chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, meticulously noting details about interactions between individual animals. She is now using this data to develop a description of the chimpanzees’ social network, which she will combine with infectious disease models to simulate the transmission dynamics of potential pathogens.

Gaining an understanding of how social behavior affects disease transmission may prove critical to the management and conservation of Africa’s endangered great apes. According to Rushmore, infectious diseases such as Ebola, measles, and respiratory infections are known to pose a serious threat to the survival of African apes. Although apes are known to be highly social animals, there is very little data about how their social behavior affects the risk of disease transmission.

“Understanding the links between primate behavioral ecology and pathogen spread is important for advancing conservation efforts and developing effective management plans to prevent ape extinction,” said Rushmore.

Rushmore presented findings from her ongoing research at the 2011 Student Conference on Conservation Science New York on October 14. Her presentation, “Behavioral determinants of pathogen transmission in wild chimpanzees,” was named Best Talk by conference organizers.

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