Social networks could help prevent disease outbreaks in endangered chimpanzees

Social networks could help prevent disease outbreaks in endangered chimpanzees

Photo by: Rebecca Stumpf/UGA

Many think of social networks in terms of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but for Julie Rushmore (PhD ’13), social networks are tools in the fight against infectious diseases.

Rushmore, who graduated in May from UGA’s Odum School of Ecology, analyzed the social networks of wild chimpanzees to determine which individuals were most likely to contract and spread pathogens. Her findings, published in the Journal of Animal Ecology in June, could help wildlife managers target their efforts to prevent outbreaks and potentially help public health officials prevent disease in human populations as well.

Disease prevention in wildlife is logistically challenging, and resources are scarce, Rushmore says. Even when vaccines are available, it is impractical to vaccinate every individual in a wildlife population. She used social network analysis to pinpoint the individuals most important in disease transmission.

Rushmore observed a community of wild chimpanzees in Kibale National Park in Uganda, recording the interactions of individuals and family groups over a nine-month period to determine which individuals—and which types of individuals—were most central. Her analysis revealed that the most central figures in the network turned out to be high-ranking mothers and juveniles with large families. Second in centrality were the high-ranking males.

Rushmore and her colleagues are continuing their research, using infectious disease models to simulate outbreaks on these networks and to develop targeted interventions.

“Ultimately, we want to develop vaccination strategies that could both prevent large outbreaks and lower the number of animals requiring vaccination,” she says.