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Explorers Club Grant Winner to Study Disease in Wild Primates at Kibale National Park, Africa
Posted on July 25, 2011

Working with The Explorers Club, Eddie Bauer is funding two significant grants for research and exploration. The grants are directed toward projects that contribute significantly to work regarding climate change, preservation or sustainability. This story’s author, grant recipient Jan Gogarten, is studying disease in wild primates in Uganda.

By Jan Gogarten

Last winter, I was wondering what I would do for the summer between completing my master’s degree at SUNY Stony Brook and starting my Ph.D. at McGill University, when I got a call from Lorie Karnath, president of the Explorers Club. She called to let me know that I was the recipient of the 2011 Eddie Bauer Youth Grant, which provided funding to send me to Uganda’s Kibale National Park to study the primates of that pristine forest. Without this money, I wouldn’t have been able to make the trip and begin my dissertation research. It may have been another summer of planting trees in northern British Columbia, a well-paying job but physically draining and not exactly mentally demanding.

Needless to say, I was head over heels.

Kibale is home to 13 species of primates including chimpanzees, red colobus, and mangabys, and Kibale has the highest density of primates anywhere in the world. Globally, both climate change and deforestation are dramatically affecting animal species, and this is especially true for primates, up to one-third of which are currently threatened with extinction. Countries with primate populations are losing approximately 125,000 square kilometers of forest annually—roughly the size of the state of Mississippi or more than 23,000,000 football fields. Climate change makes things worse. Kibale receives 300 millimeters more rainfall per year than it did at the start of the 20th century, less frequent droughts—an earlier onset of the rainy season—and a 4.48°C increase in average maximum monthly temperature over the last 40 years.

These changes have had impacts on species distributions, resource availability and disease dynamics. The latter may be especially devastating to primate populations, as recent research has shown that infectious diseases have joined bushmeat hunting and habitat loss as major drivers of population declines in primates. For example, human respiratory diseases have contributed to a nearly 70 percent decline in habituated chimpanzees at Tai Forest in the Cote d’Ivoire, as well as dramatic population declines at other sites. Meanwhile, malaria, HIV, and Ebola all originated in primate populations and recently made the jump to human populations. The global impact of these diseases, especially in conjunction with environmental change, is tremendous.

My goal is to elucidate how the changing environment will interact with primate behavior and disease dynamics in wild populations. Specifically, I want to understand the relationship between environmental factors, behavior and disease, and I will collect samples from across Kibale National Park. Luckily, we won’t have to dart or capture the primates; sample collection just involves watching animals until they defecate and collecting samples. Never have I seen people as excited about excrement as primatologists in the woods following monkeys. These samples will be taken back to Colin Chapman’s lab at McGill University where I will use a variety of different techniques to check for many different diseases.

Information about the disease will be incorporated into a spatial epidemiology analysis to understand the environmental and behavioral factors that predict primate diseases across the landscape. By integrating more than 40 years of data, I will be able to understand how the changing climate will impact disease dynamics in Kibale. I have had the opportunity to conduct fieldwork extensively in Central and South America as well as in Mexico and Canada—studying black catbirds, king vultures, weakly electric fish, white faced capuchins, and frogs—but this will be my first work with the primates of Africa.

I arrived in Kibale on May 31, and if the Internet cooperates, I will keep you posted on my progress from the field.

Author: - Monday, July 25th, 2011
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