2/16/2016 Peter Durantine

Searching for the Cause of AIDS Through Chimpanzee SIV

 In Tanzania's Gombe Stream National Park, a researcher from Franklin & Marshall College is observing the health of chimpanzees with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), the virus that led to the AIDS pandemic in humans.

"We want to do everything we can to prevent chimpanzee population declines, and their leading cause of death is infectious disease," said Assistant Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Lonsdorf, who directs the project from Lancaster, analyzing health data about the chimps.

For the last 10 years, seven colleges and universities have teamed up to study the behavior of the precursor of AIDS in its natural chimpanzee host. The National Institutes of Health recently awarded the project a $3.4 million grant. Lonsdorf received $440,000 of that grant to continue her analysis.

"My main job for the grant is managing the observational data," Lonsdorf said. "We knew so little about standardized health issues in chimpanzees before we started this project because the work is intense, long-term and laborious." 

  • Senior Holly Torres with Professor Lonsdorf, double checking field data sent to F&M from Gombe. Torres reviews the information for accuracy and clarity. Students say the experience is excellent preparation for graduate school. Senior Holly Torres with Professor Lonsdorf, double checking field data sent to F&M from Gombe. Torres reviews the information for accuracy and clarity. Students say the experience is excellent preparation for graduate school. Image Credit: Deb Grove

Lonsdorf is conducting observational research on chimpanzees with and without SIV, examining how the virus affects the animals relative to their overall health. A field staff in Gombe conducts the observations and collects the data.

As keeper of Gombe chimpanzee health records, Lonsdorf responds when primate researchers at Illinois, Minnesota, George Washington, Duke, Penn, or Emory universities inquire whether an individual chimp was showing signs of illness on any given day.

Lonsdorf travels to Gombe at least once a year to check in with the field team and initiate any new data collection protocols that are necessary.  They watch for observable clinical signs of illness and conduct the kind of routine data collection primatologist Jane Goodall pioneered at Gombe in the 1960s. 

"The researchers follow individual chimpanzees around daily and record their behavior," Lonsdorf said. Each day, staff must complete a health-data checklist. "Does anything look abnormal? Are they limping? Coughing? Have a runny nose? Explosive diarrhea? Missing patches of skin?" Lonsdorf ticks off from a list.

If a chimpanzee appears to be ailing, researchers collect non-invasive samples, such as feces, to attempt to identify the pathogen and test whether it is bacterial or viral.

"We monitor their health without touching them," the professor said.

The field data are sent to F&M, where student researchers double-check the data for accuracy and clarity. Students say the experience is excellent preparation for graduate school.

"This has given me experience with fieldwork without ever stepping foot in the field at Gombe," said Holly Torres, a senior animal behavior major. "This independent study has helped me get an idea of what I would be getting myself into."

Although her work mostly entailed reading and verifying reports, Torres said she formed a connection to the chimpanzees, half a world away.

"I never would have imagined how much I would get to know about them," Torres said. "I have been able to learn what families and relationships exist in each of the colonies I've been working on. I feel like I kind of know them now."

  • Baby chimpanzee and mother in Gombe. Baby chimpanzee and mother in Gombe. Image Credit: Ikiwaner
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