Wild animals host a wide variety of pathogens that can spread to other animals and humans. Such diseases, including Ebola and COVID-19, significantly affect human health, agriculture and wildlife conservation. Historically, disease control methods (e.g. vaccination, therapeutics) have focused on humans or livestock rather than wild animal reservoirs. Focusing on disease control in wildlife could be more effective in preventing disease emergence in humans, but that approach is currently limited by three factors. First, many diseases are maintained in cycles that spread across landscapes, but wildlife diseases are notoriously difficult to assess at these large spatial scales, making responses to interventions unpredictable. Second, tools like vaccines have been difficult to administer to sufficient numbers of animals to actually reduce disease transmission in the wild. Third, interventions are usually bounded by societal constraints, both financial (e.g., limited funds to invest) and sociological (e.g., conflicting stakeholder interests). New technologies, including vaccines that can spread among wildlife and miniaturized animal-borne tracking systems, have unrealized potential to overcome these limitations. This project will focus on reducing vampire bat transmitted rabies, which has significant human health and agricultural impacts across Latin America, but the methods developed for this study could be applied to other important wildlife diseases. The project will strengthen research capacity through training of students and early career scientists in field, laboratory and quantitative methodologies.

This project will conduct field and laboratory research to test specific hypotheses about the epidemiology and management of vampire bat-transmitted rabies. The researchers will: (1) Use field experiments with animal-borne GPS tags and large-scale data on bat presence from questionnaires and historical rabies outbreaks to generate models that can be used to determine how human disturbance influences bat abundance and dispersal; (2) Conduct studies using captive and wild vampire bats to determine host and ecological factors that will influence the use of self-spreading rabies vaccines that target bats; and (3) Use parameters estimated from fieldwork and captive studies to optimize strategies for localized control and regional elimination of vampire bat rabies that preserve diverse stakeholder requirements, e.g. wildlife conservation goals as well as improved human and livestock health.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Environmental Biology (DEB)
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Katharina Dittmar
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University of Wisconsin Madison
United States
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