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We’ve updated our Privacy Policy to make it clearer how we use your personal data. We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. You can read our Cookie Policy here. Hippopotamus aren’t the first thing that come to mind when considering epidemiology and disease ecology. And yet these amphibious megafauna offered UC Santa Barbara ecologist Keenan Stears a window into the progression of an anthrax outbreak that struck Ruaha National Park, Tanzania, in the dry season of The results, which appear in the journal Ecosphere, present a unique perspective on disease ecology and illustrate how anthropogenic changes can impact wildlife and human health.

The ecology of wildlife disease was far out of mind during the dry season in , when Stears and his team outfitted 10 male hippos with GPS collars. The researchers sought to track the animals’ movements to better understand their behavior and ecology, especially in light of reduced flows along many of Africa’s major rivers.

The resulting study was the first to track hippo movement and land use, and finally uncovered some of the basic facts about hippos’ spatial ecology.

Then the anthrax came. The GPS tracking collars had been on the animals for about a year, roughly as long as they’re supposed to last before dropping off. Noticing one of the collars hadn’t moved for a couple of days, he figured it had fallen off. It appeared to be in a nearby pool, so Stears hiked out to retrieve it.

Stears had stumbled upon an anthrax outbreak. Anthrax is an infection caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis , which can manifest in a variety of ways depending on how it’s contracted. The bacterium is notable for its ability to produce spores that can lie dormant in the soil for years.

Notably, in outbreaks like the one in this study, animals can only spread the disease once they die. Although he isn’t a disease ecologist, Stears quickly realized his GPS data could illuminate aspects of the outbreak. There didn’t seem to be any existing studies that combined a spatio-temporal account of an active anthrax outbreak with wildlife movement, he explained.

Geological Survey and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That meant identifying which of the many disconnected pools along this stretch of the Great Ruaha River were infected.

Stears’ colleagues at Ruaha National Park conducted sampling for the pathology to confirm the anthrax outbreak. Stears and his team conducted daily counts of both live and dead hippos in these pools. The surveys enabled them to track the disease’s spread, its rate and direction.

The scientists were also curious where the hippos were coming from, where they were going and whether the outbreak was influencing their behavior. The researchers linked this information with the hippo movement data they had from the GPS collars. Four of the 10 hippos they had tracked could have caught the disease, Stears said, and of those, three died. The team found that infection had no noticeable effect on a hippo’s movement.

Infected individuals roamed just as much as healthy hippos. Under certain conditions, wildlife can succumb to infection within a few days. Even if this is the case, a hippo can walk about seven kilometers over the course of a night in search of water.

Thus, hippos can quickly move the disease over large distances. What’s more, the animals didn’t appear to actively avoid carcasses. Well, dry times are not good times to be a hippo.

Normally, species avoid the bodies of their own kind. But with suitable ponds so scarce, the amphibious animals were forced to remain in pools alongside the dead. Now this paper’s showing that their movements spread the disease as well. As pools dry up, hippos either pack into those that remain or move to find new ones. Increased crowding and social interactions can drive up physiological stress, which scientists have linked to a greater susceptibility to infection.

Additionally, altered hippo movements as they search for new pools raise the risk of exposure to anthrax reservoirs as well as the duration that they interact with these reservoirs. Aggressive interactions around the remaining pools mean that hippos frequently visit several in a given night.

All these factors have exacerbated anthrax outbreaks in hippo populations. Stears noted that hippos also appear particularly susceptible to these outbreaks, aggregating as they do in small, dirty pools during the dry season. Other animals avoid drinking from hippo pools during these times because of all the dung that has accumulated due to the lack of river flow. Instead, they seek out shallower puddles that are cleaner, which potentially protects them from contracting lethal doses of the disease.

There are far less hippos, for example, than African elephants. Their outlook is further complicated by potential impacts that climate change may have on rivers and how this change might amplify disease outbreak risk.

There hasn’t been much research on anthrax and river flow, he said; most of the work has been terrestrial. The historical records could be a treasure chest of information. Shedding light on the factors that influence disease dynamics helps scientists predict how disturbances might affect future outbreaks. With this information, they can begin to assess how future circumstances could affect the extent and severity of an anthrax outbreak, as well as the probability that it jumps to other species of wildlife, livestock and even humans.

In all, the paper represents a confluence of events that offered an unparalleled opportunity to explore novel disease dynamics.

Hippopotamus movements structure the spatiotemporal dynamics of an active anthrax outbreak. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.

I Understand. June 16 Original story from University of California, Santa Barbara. Read time:. Chosen for you. Application Note. How To Guide.