Featured Researcher: Julie Rushmore

Julie Rushmore is a DVM/PhD candidate jointly enrolled in the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Odum School of Ecology. She studies behavioral determinants of disease transmission in wild chimpanzees in Uganda.

Julie believes that studying the intersection of disease ecology and animal behavior will provide key insights for wildlife conservation through disease management efforts. She is one of a handful of students enrolled in the University of Georgia’s DVM/PhD program, and through the Odum School of Ecology, she is studying how social and ecological factors affect disease transmission in wild chimpanzees. Infectious diseases are increasingly viewed as a significant threat to endangered apes, and recent outbreaks of Ebola, measles, and flu-like illnesses have led to disease-induced deaths that emphasize the potential consequences for primate conservation. As part of a Fulbright Fellowship, Julie recently spent 11 months observing the association patterns for a community of wild chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kibale Forest National Park. Additionally, to assess the prevalence of various sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in wild ape populations, she collected biological samples from several chimpanzee and gorilla communities across Central and East Africa.

Julie has been interested in the behavior of non-human primates since she was a child. While attending Duke University for undergraduate studies, she participated in and led various research projects at the Duke Lemur Center. After graduating from Duke in 2006, Julie traveled for several months to learn about in situ primate conservation. She spent three months studying the health, ecology, and conservation of endangered lemurs and fossas in an isolated dry forest. Later that year, she traveled to northern Vietnam for a month with a Duke Biological Anthropology PhD student where they observed a dwindling population of endangered langurs. By learning first-hand about the impact disease transmission has on declining primate populations, Julie became increasingly interested in the role of infectious diseases in wildlife conservation.

Along with a team of collaborators, Julie is now integrating the chimpanzee behavior data she collected in Uganda into disease transmission models to inform disease management strategies. By constructing chimpanzee contact networks based on behavioral association patterns, Julie is characterizing when the chimpanzee community tends to be highly connected, and thus vulnerable to epidemics. Similarly, she is determining which individuals tend to have high levels of contact, and are thus likely to play key roles in spreading disease throughout the community. By simulating epidemics on observed contact networks, Julie is assessing if disease transmission can be mitigated by targeting chimpanzees with high levels of contact for vaccination or treatment in the event of an epidemic. Further, by examining wild chimpanzee and gorilla biological samples for STDs in the laboratory, Julie is describing how prevalent STDs are among promiscuous ape populations. She is also assessing if certain STDs reduce host fecundity in apes, as is commonly the case with human STDs.

Julie’s highly interdisciplinary research can assist ape conservation efforts in two key ways. First, the contact network models she creates can serve as tools for developing disease management strategies. For example, vaccine-darting interventions are risky procedures that can be used as last resort measures in the event of an epidemic. Models of disease spread developed from her research can be used to predict the minimum number of targeted individuals that should be vaccinated to effectively control an outbreak. Second, STD screening of wild ape populations can provide important insights for conservation management planning, particularly if wild apes have STDs that affect fecundity. For example, using lab techniques developed during Julie’s PhD, captive apes that are to be released into the wild could be screened for detrimental STDs in an effort to prevent such diseases from entering uninfected, wild ape populations.

After completing her PhD, Julie will start her training in clinical medicine at UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She is extremely excited about the research opportunities in conservation medicine, and she plans to continue working in Africa and to maintain an active role in research that integrates behavior, disease ecology, and conservation.