The Rice Center supports research in the broad field of conservation medicine, whereby scientists conduct research focused on monitoring, evaluating and understanding the relationship between diseases and abnormalities of animals, human health and environmental conditions. Many animals are sensitive to environmental conditions and can serve as bioindicators of potential human health risks. These investigations thus contribute to both better conservation of wildlife and improvement of conditions affecting human health.
The VCU Conservation Medicine Program is an emerging multidisciplinary program focused on the interactions of wildlife, human and environmental health. Diseases, anthropogenic activities, climate and environmental conditions all have consequences for both wildlife and people.
Disease and health monitoring in amphibians
One ongoing study is focused on assessment of the incidence and types of diseases and abnormalities found in amphibians in urban and non-urban sites. This study involves analysis of frogs, toads and salamanders for both gross disease evidence, histopathological diagnosis and molecular analysis for the presence of the DNA of specific pathogens from tissue swabs and tissue samples. Analysis of the occurrence and frequency of the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which is contributing to amphibian declines world-wide, and the ranavirus species, which have killed numerous amphibians and some reptiles, are closely investigated. The VCU Rice Center is among the non-urban sites being studied.
Ambystoma maculatum – spotted salamander – with swelling under its throat due to Ichthyophonus-like infection.
Adult northern green frog (Lithobates clamitans melanota) found dying in urban Virginia from wide-spread bacterial infection, see red areas on legs, later determined to be Aeromonas hydraphilla, and Ranavirus infection confirmed by PCR analysis. This frog also suffered from a rectal prolapse.
Lizards and lyme disease
Assessment of the interactions between tick nymphs and eastern fence lizards is a project in collaboration with Richard Marconi, Ph.D., Department of Microbiology, and members of the Virginia Herpetological Society. Other investigators have shown that biodiversity reduces the incidence of Lyme disease transmission to people. Lizards in particular are frequently bitten by tick larvae and nymphs. Studies from California have shown that the blood of the western fence lizard kills the Lyme diseasecausing spirochete. In the on-going study we are examining the incidence of tick nymph and tick infestation on eastern fence lizards at wildlife refuges and attempting to determine if the blood of eastern fence lizards can also kill Lyme disease-causing spirochetes.
Eastern fence lizard with tick nymph infestation.
Relocation of eastern box turtles at the Rice Center
A new project with John Kloepher, Wildlife Diversity Biologist and herpetologist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, was initiated spring 2008. We are developing effective ways to release captive-borne, young eastern box turtles and restore them to the forest habitat at the Rice Center. The study involves tracking the movement of the turtles through radio telemetry and monitoring their health status before and after release.
Mosquitoes, birds and human diseases
Investigation is ongoing into the interaction of mosquito vectors and their avian hosts in the transmission of avian and human diseases. The central tenet of the research is that understanding the rate at which infected mosquitoes feed on birds is critical to defining the amplification potential of, and possibly preventing the spread of vector borne diseases such as West Nile virus. The study is monitoring mosquito–bird interactions at over 300 nesting boxes, including many at the Rice Center. Other related projects focus on the relationship of human populations to aquatic mosquito habitat in river systems and the transmission of malaria in Haiti.