How Do People Affect Zoonotic Disease Dynamics in Madagascar? (2018-2019)


This project will investigate the links between biodiversity, infectious disease and human health in a rural community in Madagascar. Research has documented conflicting associations between land use change and infectious disease risk, with some studies finding that deforestation increases disease risk for humans, while other studies find the opposite pattern. It is critically important to make sense of these conflicting patterns. One approach is to design studies that elucidate the mechanisms that drive associations between land use change and infectious disease risk for humans. One such mechanism is that deforestation alters wildlife communities by reducing habitat for native species and introducing invasive species, thus changing the disease dynamics of biological systems. The specific effects of human activities on disease, however, depend on the intensity of land use, the original biodiversity and other factors.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will investigate how human land-use decisions affect the small mammal community and disease transmission around the Marojejy national park. Human subsistence activities and population growth are encroaching on the protected rainforest in the area. The project team will synthesize evidence on how human activities influence infectious disease risk globally, collect new data on infectious diseases in humans, domesticated animals and wild mammals and identify policy actions that reduce disease risk and conserve biodiversity.

In Madagascar, the team will test specific hypotheses for how land-use decisions alter ecological communities and influence disease transmission. Team members will assess the factors that lead some humans to experience greater risk of acquiring infectious diseases from wild animals. The team will answer the following questions: What are the impacts of protected areas on disease mitigation as an ecosystem service? How do different types of land use influence small mammal communities and inferred transmission pathways? Do socioeconomic factors influence which people are at greatest risk of acquiring infectious diseases from wildlife? 

Anticipated Outcomes

Two publications (one original research article and one review) with graduate and undergraduate students as co-authors; individual honors and master’s theses on research results; data for future grant submissions

Student Opportunities

Students will have the opportunity to experience life in a low-resource setting and directly engage with the realities and policy challenges of improving global health and conserving biodiversity. Students will also learn theory in ecology, evolutionary anthropology, disease ecology, epidemiology, conservation policy and practice and ecosystem services. In the field, students will learn to design and conduct ecological and social science research. They will engage with the local rural communities, informing residents about the project, advising on general health guidelines and learning about local culture and ecology. Opportunities for training in statistical analysis and informatics, research presentation and writing will expand the career development aspects of this project for the early-career researchers.

The team will consist of two undergraduates, one master’s student and one Ph.D. student from Duke, and one master’s student from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar. Duke students will likely come from the departments of evolutionary anthropology, biology, global health or environmental sciences. Students with a desire to pursue field biology, disease ecology and natural resource management and policy are especially encouraged to apply.

Students will be evaluated based on their participation on campus. In the field, students will be evaluated on their daily participation in research objectives.

This project is pre-approved to meet the Global Health major’s Experiential Learning Activity requirement.


Summer 2018 – Spring 2019  

  • Summer 2018: Field research and data collection for 12 weeks in Madagascar
  • Fall 2018: Course on Advances in Disease Ecology; prepare short presentations of research and lead discussions of papers; analyze data, write reports and research articles, use preliminary results in external grant proposals
  • Spring 2019: Write up results in the style of a scientific publication, present results at local and international conferences


Course credit available for fall and spring semesters

Faculty/Staff Team Members

James Herrera, Arts & Sciences-Evolutionary Anthropology*
Randall Kramer, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy*
Charles Nunn, Arts & Sciences-Evolutionary Anthropology*

Undergraduate Team Members

Ryan Fitzgerald, Biology (BS), Global Health (AB2)
Ajile Owens, Sociology (AB), Global Health (AB2)
Lisa Regula

* denotes team leader


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