There's a most unusual gym in ecologist Sonia Altizer’s lab at the University of Georgia in Athens. The athletes are monarch butterflies, and their workouts are carefully monitored to determine how parasites impact their flight performance. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Altizer and her team study how animal behavior, including long distance migration, affects the spread and evolution of infectious disease. In monarchs, the researchers study a protozoan parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or “OE” for short. Up to two billion monarchs migrate every year to central Mexico, where Altizer and her colleagues capture, sample and release hundreds of butterflies each day during their field study. Their work is providing some details on the differences in how diseases spread in human and animal populations. Vampire bats may not have the beauty factor that monarch butterflies do, but the bats are important in Altizer’s study of how the spread of infectious diseases by animals is affected by human activities. In Peru, University of Georgia postdoctoral researcher Daniel Streicker focuses on these bats whose populations have exploded in recent years. Ranchers have introduced livestock into the Andes and the Amazon. More bloodthirsty bats might mean more rabies. Streicker and Altizer say that the results of this study will improve rabies control efforts in Latin America, where vampire bats cause most human and livestock cases.
Provided by the National Science Foundation