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Supporting new science

August 12, 2013

Funding for scientific research can take years to acquire, with researchers negotiating their way through submissions, reviews, edits, and resubmissions. But one group of young researchers at Indiana University Bloomington is taking its funding request to the public by using a crowd-funding website designed specifically for supporting new science.

The four IU Bloomington anthropology students, all studying in the Evolutionary Physiology and Ecology Lab of evolutionary anthropologist Michael Muehlenbein, want to continue their study of ecotourism and its relationship to disease transmission between humans and primates by funding a trip to South Africa — the population center for the Chacma baboon. They plan on using Microryza, a crowd-funding platform for research where individuals pool their money until a funding goal is met.

The goal for Ph.D. students Colleen Friedly, Sean Prall, and Eric Shattuck, and undergraduate researcher Emilee Larson, is to raise $7,500 to pay for round-trip plane tickets to South Africa for themselves and Muehlenbein. Once there, they will spend about two weeks at the leading South African tourism site Cape Point surveying an estimated 1,000 tourists about their travel health knowledge, attitudes and practices, health status, opinions on ecotourism, and motivations for primate tourism.

“This research is an excellent training opportunity for students interested in public health, conservation, and anthropology,” says Muehlenbein, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Anthropology. “Our results will be published in scientific journals and presented at professional meetings and elsewhere, with another intention being to use the data to help draft policy statements to improve primate conservation in South Africa.”

Chacma baboons are one of the largest monkeys, with males reaching up to nearly 100 pounds, and in South Africa’s Southern Cape Peninsula they are increasingly interacting with humans. Muehlenbein, whose work on ecotourism-related human-primate interactions has taken him to Borneo and Japan, says the Cape Peninsula is a perfect site for the research because it receives nearly 2 million international visitors each year.

“Wildlife viewing is the most popular activity at Cape Point, and we know from other research that about 475 Chacma baboons are presently found in the area,” he adds. “We also know there is considerable contact among human visitors, Cape residents and monkey populations, which means plenty of opportunity for disease transmission from humans to these baboons through both direct transmission — touching animals, handling food, or animal bites — and indirect transmission like animals eating our garbage and waste, and even respiratory transmission.

Many wild primate populations have been decimated by diseases transmitted by humans, and many pathogens are transmitted from wild primates to humans, including immunodeficiency viruses and malaria. By conducting surveys of tourists at the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, the team hopes to better understand tourist health status, motivations regarding environmental behaviors, their knowledge of environmental problems, their willingness to take risks and their affinity for wildlife. Each of these factors can influence disease transmission, Muehlenbein says.

Learn more about the Monkey Ecotourism and Health in South Africa project here.

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