Monday, February 26, 2018

Ecosystems hanging by a thread

Emory disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie served on an international committee that developed best practice guidelines for health monitoring and disease control in great ape populations, part of a growing public education effort.

By Tony Rehagen
Emory Magazine

Thomas Gillespie’s parents and teachers always wanted him to go into medicine.

“Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, if you were smart and interested in biology, you were supposed to be a doctor,” he says.

Gillespie, meanwhile, was always more interested in primates. In seventh grade, he phoned animal psychologist Penny Patterson, famous for teaching the gorilla Koko how to use sign language, and interviewed the scientist about Koko’s diet while punching out notes on a typewriter. He was premed at the University of Illinois, but spent his internship at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, working in the “Tropic World” primate exhibit. His favorite undergrad course was biological anthropology, the study of biological and behavioral aspects of humans and nonhuman primates, looking at our closest relatives to better understand ourselves.

Gillespie eventually took a year off before graduate school to work with primate communities in the Peruvian Amazon. The apes finally won out — Gillespie would choose a doctorate in zoology over medical school.

But it wasn’t long before the two fields of study collided. While monitoring the group behavior of colobine monkeys in Africa, Gillespie observed that some of the animals were eating bark from the African cherry tree — not a typical food source for them. When he dug deeper, Gillespie learned that human doctors in the region used that same bark to treat parasites in their patients. The monkeys, he realized, were self-medicating.

“That discovery in these monkeys brought me back toward the health science side of biology,” says Gillespie.

Gillespie’s return to a medical approach to zoology came not a moment too soon—for the sake of the primates and maybe even all of humankind. As an associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences specializing in the disease ecology of primates, Gillespie and his team of researchers have helped uncover a crisis among our nearest taxonomic neighbors. According to an article coauthored by Gillespie and thirty other experts and published in the journal Science Advances, 75 percent of the world’s five-hundred-plus primate species are declining in population, and a whopping 60 percent face extinction, largely due to human encroachment.

Read more in Emory Magazine.

Experts warn of impending extinction of many of the world's primates
Chimpanzee studies highlight disease risks to all endangered wildlife

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