Understanding socially-structured transmission of infectious agents in wild baboons
Biologists currently have a poor empirical understanding of how infectious agents move within and between social groups of wild animals (i.e., socially-structured transmission). Empirical research on this topic has been limited by the fact that it is logistically difficult to directly track the movements of infectious agents in wildlife. We aim to solve this problem by using population genetics to map the movements of common infectious agents onto the social landscape of five baboon groups. The results will provide a detailed picture of how different infectious agents, with a range of transmission modes and fitness effects, move between and within social groups, and how these movements influence individual infection risk. This project will be among the first to use genetic tools to provide such a detailed picture; the results have the potential to transform our understanding of socially-structured disease transmission. Understanding socially-structured transmission in wild social animals is valuable for two reasons: First, socially-structured transmission has basic implications for understanding the evolution of sociality. Exposure to disease is thought to be a major evolutionary cost of group-living, and understanding how infectious agents spread in populations helps explain why some animals are more infected than others. Hence, understanding socially-structured transmission helps to reveal how exposure to infection from conspecifics influences the disease-related costs and benefits of sociality. Second, understanding socially-structured transmission has applied value for combating the spread of disease in wildlife populations. Disease models are usually highly sensitive to variation in transmission patterns; hence, to predict the dynamics of an epidemic in social wildlife, biologists need accurate information on how disease spreads in natural populations of social animals.