Sarah Jobbins

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Wildlife Disease and Conservation

Research Summary:

Dr. Jobbins joined the Alexander Wildlife Health and Disease Laboratory in fall 2011. She completed her doctorate in Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney in 2010, with a research focus on marsupial immunology and immunogenetics, as well as host-pathogen interactions between koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) and the deadly fungal pathogen Cryptococcus gattii. Her previous research involved the creation of a microsatellite fingerprinting system for the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), with applications for captive management as well as translocation and reintroduction of this highly endangered species back into the wild.

Dr. Jobbins’ research interests include conservation biology, wildlife health, zoonoses, public health and disease ecology, in particular pathogen transmission at the human-wildlife interface. She divides her time between the Alexander Wildlife Health and Disease Laboratory at Virginia Tech (USA) and the Center for African Resources: Animals, Communities and Land use (CARACAL) in Botswana. Dr. Jobbins is currently working on several research projects, including an assessment of the prevalence of the zoonotic pathogen Leptospira spp. in wildlife and humans living in and around Chobe National Park, and an investigation of the impacts of anthropogenic landscape change on genetic diversity of banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) and African wild dogs. She is also working with Dr. Alexander on her NSF-funded project examining linkages between human and animal populations and how they influence water quality and microorganism transmission in the Chobe River Region of northern Botswana.


Claire Sanderson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Wildlife Disease and Conservation

Research Summary:

Claire Sanderson joined Dr. Alexander’s lab in September 2011 as a postdoctoral research fellow. She earned her PhD in Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney. Her work focused on the intersection of infectious disease, genomics, and immune gene diversity in the study of marsupials and monotremes. She has worked on diverse host-pathogen systems from DFTD in the Tasmanian devil to Mucormycosis in the platypus. Following her PhD, she moved to South Africa where she was a senior research assistant for the University of Zurich studying the behavioural ecology of slender mongooses and meerkats in the Kalahari Desert.

Her current research in Dr. Alexander's lab is directed at exploring behavior influences on host-pathogen interactions using the banded mongoose and the emergence of Mycobacterium mungi, a novel strain of tuberculosis. Dr. Sanderson also studies the role of Allee effects in social carnivore populations, the role of group size on functional gene diversity in African wild dogs and is currently working on Dr. Alexander’s NSF-funded project exploring the transmission dynamics of microorganisms between human and wildlife populations, and how this influences water quality in the Chobe region of Botswana.Her research interests broadly encompass behavioural ecology, disease ecology, conservation biology and population genetics. 


Peter Laver

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Wildlife Conservation

Research Summary:

Since 2000, banded mongooses (Mungos mungo) along the Chobe River in northern Botswana have experienced almost yearly outbreaks of a disease previously thought to be human tuberculosis (TB) (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) but recently found to be a newly identified pathogen within the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex, Mycobacterium mungos. The outbreaks have had mortality rates of up to 25% in certain troops within the population. Due to the nature of the human-wildlife interface in which this population is found, the high burden of immune-compromised humans in the region (HIV prevalence of up to 40% for certain demographic groups), and the high degree of relatedness between the new pathogen and other Mycobacterium species that infect humans, these outbreaks could pose serious challenges to human and wildlife health in the region. At this stage very little is known about the pathogen and the transmission dynamics and we are investigating the possibility that this is a zoonotic disease with possible transmission between mongooses and humans in either or possibly both directions.


Photo by Lance Young

Bonnie Fairbanks

PhD Student, Biological Sciences

Research Summary:

Behavioral and Physiological Factors Affecting TB Infection in Banded Mongooses

Infectious diseases are characterized by strong individual heterogeneity in infection (i.e. a proportion of susceptible host individuals never get sick), but the reasons underlying this variation are poorly understood. In social animals, behavior and physiology interact bidirectionally to influence both the probability of exposure to a pathogen and the degree of susceptibility once exposed. Opportunities to examine these bidirectional links in a social vertebrate with striking behavioral variation have been limited. In northeastern Botswana banded mongooses (Mungos mungo), a highly social mammal, are succumbing to the newly-discovered pathogen Mycobacterium mungi within the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex of bacteria. Pathogens in this complex cause tuberculosis (TB) in various species including humans. Approximately 10-20% of mongooses in our study population die from this visually-apparent disease while other members of the same social group (known as a troop) remain unaffected. The striking variation in infection among individuals and the unique social structure of banded mongooses, wherein many individuals breed and most troop-members help to raise young regardless of parentage (Cant, 2003), provide a novel opportunity to examine how behavioral and physiological characteristics interact to influence variation in disease exposure and susceptibility. 
My research integrates disease ecology, behavioral ecology and physiological ecology to test the following hypotheses regarding how behavior and physiology contribute to heterogeneity of infection in banded mongooses:

  1.   Behavioral roles that bring mongooses into contact with potential sources of infection and/or frequent contact with other mongooses will have higher TB exposure rates.
  2. Individuals with “high stress” hormone profiles (e.g. high glucocorticoids coupled with low estrogens) will be most susceptible to TB infection.

The unique social structure of banded mongooses lends itself to study of behavioral and hormonal variation for several reasons. First, sufficient sample sizes are easily obtainable, since troops range in size from 4 to 40 members. Also, individuals within a troop possess roles (e.g. breeder, babysitter) which have specific behaviors associated with them (Cant 2003), and these differences in behavior may lead to differences in exposure to pathogens. For example, some roles might result in increased contact with TB via exploration of animal waste (hypothesis 1). Alternatively, exposure may be uniform, but mongoose susceptibility may vary due primary hormone physiology that differs from one individual to another (hypothesis 2).
Methods. My study is part of a larger investigation seeking to understand the ecology of TB in banded mongoose populations. I will study 4 radio-collared mongoose troops using focal sampling to collect behavioral data and feces collection for hormone metabolite data. Individuals are identified using collars, distinctive features such as scars, and/or hair dye. Each troop will be observed for one week per month during three dry seasons, and feces will be collected opportunistically during this time from known individuals. Fecal hormone metabolites will be analyzed for glucocorticoids (stress hormones), testosterone, and estrogens using RIA (Palme, 2005). Because of the interaction and feedback between hormones and behavior, path analysis will be used to statistically clarify causal pathways, and experimental hormone manipulation coupled with assays of immune function are planned for a captive population currently held in Botswana.



John Tyler Fox

PhD Student, Wildlife Conservation

Research Summary:

John Tyler Fox joined Dr. Alexander’s lab in fall 2012 to begin his Ph.D. researching water quality and health in Botswana. He earned his B.A. in Biology from the University of Maine at Farmington, with a research focus on potential correlates between lichen diversity and human health in Maine, and his M.S. in Biology from the University of Central Arkansas, investigating the impacts of agricultural chemicals on cave stream water quality in a large karst watershed in southeastern Missouri. Most recently, Tyler has been part of a multi-disciplinary team of researchers at Michigan State University, modeling long-term groundwater sustainability in relation to coupled landscape, atmospheric and socioeconomic systems (CLASS) in the High Plains Aquifer region of the United States. Tyler has worked with government and non-profit organizations in the U.S. and Eastern Europe on a number of biodiversity and habitat conservation, water quality, and resource sustainability projects. Tyler’s research focuses primarily on the nexus of human-landscape interactions in relation to environmental health, plant and animal biodiversity, and limited natural resource availability. He is particularly interested in how human behavior and cultural practices, in combination with environmental stochasticity, impact water quality and use, and human, animal, and environmental health.


Kuruthumu Mwamende

PhD Student, Wildlife Conservation

Research Summary:

My research at Virginia Tech will focus on evaluating foraging behavior and habitat use of Sanje mangabey (Cercocebus sanjei) and yellow baboon (Papio cynocephalus) to identify effects of forest fragmentation and habitat change on foraging behavior, gastrointestinal parasite loads, maize (Zea mays ) raiding by these species, and the impact on food security. I am particularly interested in understanding the impacts of food resource abundance and habitat fragmentation on dynamics of foraging behavior and parasite prevalence to and evaluate feeding strategies that shape the species use of their habitat. The project will document maize damage and raiding; crop damage by primates in Tanzania has proved to exceed the damage by elephants and insects, thus threatening human food security. Further, as food security is increasingly becoming a global issue linked to development, environment and trade, and highly affected by current changes in the climate, the project will also investigate the links between crop production, damage by wildlife and food security by assessing ‘on farm’ and ‘on storage’ maize damage by baboons and mangabeys, their impacts on production and food security, and evaluate climate change adaptations mechanisms in the areas. The study will be conducted in the nearby Parks of Udzungwa and Mikumi in Tanzania. I will use a combination of direct observations of animals to record their use of the habitat and surrounding farms and noninvasive fecal sampling to identify parasite infestations and influences of raiding on parasite loads. Social network analyses will be applied to investigate how social contact may influence parasite transmission or antibiotic resistance for both species among ‘raiding and non raiding groups and social survey interviews will be done to learn about adaptation mechanisms. The projects aims to contribute to the overall goal of the USAID ‘Feed the future’ program which is under the umbrella of Innovative Agricultural Research Initiative (iAGRI)

Research & Extension Interests

Plant-animal interactions and wildlife damage issues.

Physiological and behavioral ecology of threatened and endangered species.

Spatial structure and social organization of primates especially mangabeys & baboons

Applications of Geographic Information Systems for biodiversity research &conservation

Human-wildlife socio-economic dimensions interactions in conservation.

Climate change impacts on rangeland and forest biodiversity.


Katty Battle

Katy Battle is an undergraduate research assistant in the Alexander Wildlife Health and Disease Ecology lab.  She has been affiliated with the lab since 2011 and is proud to assist its graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in their endeavors to meet the lab's needs and goals.  Her work includes performing PCR analyses, testing E. coli isolates for antibiotic resistance, preparing scat samples for analysis and cataloging both water and fecal samples obtained from Botswana.  She was fortunate to participate in Fralin's Undergraduate Research Fellowship during Summer 2012 under the guidance of Drs. Alexander and Jobbins where she conducted research on the prevalence of antibiotic resistance within African wildlife.