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A New Research Site, A New Disease to Uncover

Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the impact of human land development on biodiversity and how it could potentially spread infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to people. Cara will focus on bubonic plague in small mammals and henipaviruses and lyssaviruses (two strains of viruses) in bats.  ——— Azafady (that’s Malagasy for...

Malagasy aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) in the forest south of Kianjovato. Photo courtesy of Peter Hudson.

Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the impact of human land development on biodiversity and how it could potentially spread infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to people. Cara will focus on bubonic plague in small mammals and henipaviruses and lyssaviruses (two strains of viruses) in bats. 


Azafady (that’s Malagasy for sorry!) for the delay in reporting, but my advisor, Andy Dobson, and his good friend, Penn State disease ecologist, Pete Hudson, have been to visit. I’ve been running back and forth across Madagascar—and even other parts of the Indian Ocean!—as I try to hammer out the details of my PhD. Apparently, it is rather complicated to just up and decide to conduct research in Madagascar, but a month into my first field season, and I finally have a concrete plan to collect some data.

A part of me gives a sad little cry to report that I’m switching my field site away from Ranomafana and Centre ValBio— I’m sorry to say goodbye to the company of visionaries like Pat Wright and all those involved in the new healthcare NGO out of Ranomafana, but it would be folly to be using the wrong system to answer my scientific questions.

My biography notes that I am interested in “metapopulation dynamics of disease”—basically, how differences in the degree of connectivity between distinctive local populations of a reservoir host affect disease transmission, and Ranomafana is just too complex of a system to tease apart the effects of fragmentation at the onset.

After much deliberation, I’ve finally settled on a focal disease—Leptospirosis, which is a waterborne infection caused by the bacterium Leptospira and carried by both bat and small mammal (read ‘rat’) reservoirs. Lepto is a major public health threat in most of the Indian Ocean islands but has thus far gone largely unreported in Madagascar itself. Its symptoms are rather general, however (headache, fever, myalgia) so there’s a good chance it is occurring without proper diagnosis. In many parts of Africa, all fevers commonly get reported (and treated) as malaria, even when other pathogens are at work. If that’s the case with Lepto, we hope to find out.

The Leptospirosis focus comes under advice from Pete and Andy, as well as renegade biologist Steve Goodman, who works jointly through the Chicago Field Museum and his own conservation NGO, Vahatra (meaning ‘roots’ in Malagasy). Steve has been tromping across the Madagascar countryside for the past twenty-five years, studying everything and anything and has quite literally written THE BOOK on Malagasy natural history. I’m not quite sure how I managed to get so lucky with advisors, but I seem to have landed amongst the very best…

Steve has helped us select the ideal study system in Ambohitantely Special Reserve—located a few hours north of Tana and just outside the town of Ankazobe. It’s been a major site for research on the principles of island biogeography, or the idea that species’ diversity declines proportionally to the size of the habitat ‘island’ in which they are confined.

My Malagasy counterpart, Christian Hafaliana Ranaivoson, and I are all set to add microbes to the count of taxa that Steve has shown follow nested patterns of community assemblage in the fragmented forests of the site.

We’ve also managed to sort out laboratory collaborations—with a bacteriology group in the tropical island paradise of La Réunion for me (yup, life is rough) and a virology unit at Institut Pasteur in Tana for Christian. My French has been tried and tested and proven assez bien pour communiquer, and my Malagasy is improving by leaps and bounds and piles of flashcards.

It’s been a kind of soul-sucking amount of time in the city for a girl who loves the wild, but the vendor down the street from my hotel makes me smile every morning when he serves me coffee and mofo’gasy (Malagasy fry bread) for breakfast, insisting, “Efa mahay teny tsara Malagasy!”  You already know how to speak beautiful Malagasy! Hardly. But I’ll be back to buy his pastries again tomorrow.

Best of it all, I’ve gotten to share this set-up stage with Pete and Andy. Christian and I have skated along on the coattails of their Eighth Continent adventure and been treated to sightings of at least half of their twenty lemur species, as well as a surfeit of delicious meals and stimulating conversations.

There have been some great memories—from Pete squirting fried egg in his own face lunchtime of day one in Antsirabe, to Andy scribbling down a Lepto model on a napkin at afternoon tea in Ranomafana , then sending me off to do great things with my PhD. Then there were the fleas we fought off in the dingy hotel in Ankazobe and the night on the town dancing to Malagasy pop star Jerry Marcos with the local gendarmes and token Peace Corps volunteer.

Best of all was the late night hike out of Omaha Zoo biologist Ed Louis’ field site in Kianjovato, southeastern Madagascar, to track down a radio-collared aye-aye, the rare nocturnal lemur known for its bizarre face and strange dietary habits (it excavates trees to eat the beetles inside).

I pretty much never expected to see an aye-aye in my life, but Pete and Andy—with their most incredible connections—made it happen this week. Sure, tracking it via telemetry is super cheating, but it was pretty amazing nonetheless—photo above to prove it.

And better still was Christian’s awed expression when the professors bought a round of Malagasy Three Horses Beer (THB, but pronounce it in French—Tay-Osh-Bay!) for the whole aye-aye expedition. “They talk to you like a friend,” Christian said to me, surprised.

“Of course we do,” said Pete. “We’re colleagues, and that is what science is all about.” I’m excited to head off at last and get my field work started, but I’m sad, too, to see the captains go—it’s been fun having my colleagues along.


NEXT: A Cure for Madagascar

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Meet the Author

Cara Brook
My name is Cara Brook, and I am a postdoctoral fellow with the Miller Institute for Basic Research at UC Berkeley. I study the role of bats as reservoirs for some of the world's most deadly emerging viruses, including Ebola and Marburg filoviruses, Hendra and Nipah henipaviruses, and SARS coronavirus. I bridge field ecology, cellular immunology, and quantitative epidemiology to investigate this question, at both within-host and population levels. I blog from my field site while tracking down fruit bat viruses in central Madagascar. Tonga soa --Cara E. Brook is the recipient of two research grants from the Nation al Geographic Society.