Julie Rushmore, a joint Ph.D. and DVM candidate at UGA’s Odum School of Ecology and College of Veterinary Medicine, has been awarded a 2009-10 Fulbright scholarship to pursue her study of how behavior affects pathogen transmission among great apes in Uganda. Her work has implications for wildlife conservation and public health.
Rushmore will study the relationship between behavior and pathogen transmission in social animals, in this case chimpanzees. Mapping their social interactions to determine which animals are the most highly connected will provide valuable information that can be used to help inform wildlife conservation policy. If a treatable pathogen is being transmitted, conservationists could target the highly connected individuals for treatment, rather than trying to treat the entire population, which would be costly and impractical.
Rushmore will also screen wild chimpanzees and mountain gorillas as well as African sanctuary chimpanzees and bonobos for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as part of her dissertation research to determine STD rates in African apes. This information will provide a broader understanding of ape reproductive health and will also help inform wildlife conservation efforts. STDs can negatively affect human birth rates, and Rushmore’s research will help to determine whether the same is true for apes. “Apes come to the African sanctuaries after being rescued from the bush meat or illegal pet trade, and they come from many different populations,” Rushmore says. “It’s likely they have different sets of pathogens and can transmit those to each other at the sanctuary. As in humans, some STDs are treatable, so treating infected sanctuary apes prior to releasing them into the wild could prevent the introduction of novel STDs to naïve, wild ape populations.”
Rushmore also plans to explore whether wild chimpanzees have evolved any behavioral defenses against STDs. Since STDs are often capable of evading the immune system’s defenses, behaviors that help hosts avoid STDs are potentially very important. Previous studies with rats found that behavioral defenses can be effective in lowering STD rates, but the question has not yet been researched in apes.
Rushmore is one of ten UGA students to receive a Fulbright award for international study this year. She is also a 2009 recipient of the USFWS Conservation Beyond Borders Grant, Sigma Delta Epsilon/Graduate Women in Science Fellowship, Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, Animal Behavior Society E. O. Wilson Conservation Award, Animal Behavior Society Student Research Grant, American Society of Primatologists Conservation Grant, and the UGA Graduate Student Symposium Outstanding Proposed Research Award.