Training Program: Wildlife Health



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Quick Facts

Program Background

Long-term data on animal pathogens and parasites, as well as their health, are indicators of population and community wellbeing. Animal extractions from the wild, or changes to habitat or climate, can be reflected in metrics such as parasite/pathogen richness (unique number of species) or diversity (evenness of species distributions), and parameters such as animal weight or complete blood counts. In conjunction with our mark and recapture research programs, we have been safely collecting a variety of sample types for microscopic and molecular laboratory analysis to monitor wildlife disease and health since 2012 (see our publications page). These prior efforts have never seemed more important than they are today, as the world works toward overcoming a global pandemic. Only through longterm sampling programs can we tackle questions such as:

  1. Is parasite species diversity changing and how fast?
  2. To what extent are pathogens/parasites shared across multiple host species (e.g. in addition to bats, do monkeys, rodents, or marsupials harbor natural coronavirus infection)?
  3. Which parasite/pathogens impact animal health?
  4. Which humans diseases pose a risk to wildlife, and vice versa?

All of our research methods have been carefully practiced and refined by our senior scientists, and several wildlife veterinarians with whom we collaborate. Sampling protocols are comprehensive but put the comfort and safety of the animals above our own. For example, to ensure the maximum safety of the animals, we conduct all processing in the jungle, at the screening site. We limit the number of animals we screen each day. We begin each day very early, setting up our processing tents before dawn and closing them at an appropriate time to ensure that no animal is held overnight or for an entire day, depending on whether the animal is nocturnal or diurnal. Thus, we cause as minimal a disruption of their lives as is possible. Samples from this program are analyzed on site and at partner laboratories in the USA and Peru using microscopy and molecular techniques. Further on site training in field molecular genetics may be possible for participants.

High biosecurity standards and animal handling and sampling protocols are sanctioned by the Amazon Conservation Association, the Animal Care Committee of Washington University in St. Louis, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Perú.

Program Goals

Our ongoing disease and health surveillance efforts will continue to focus on primates, bats, small to medium-size terrestrial mammals, and birds. Our interest in blood, gastrointestinal, and ectoparasites continues as well, as baseline data acquired from prior seasons provide our best measures of ecological change. Hosting multiple concomitant parasite/pathogen infections is the norm for wildlife, so we are monitoring for statistically significant changes in prevalence, richness, or abundance of infections.

However, there are some important changes for this program beginning in 2021. First, we are shifting from transporting samples away from the collection site toward bringing the lab to the samples. There are enormous advantages to this, some of which you can read about here. Second, we will rely more heavily on the use of genetic techniques for detection and classification of parasites and pathogens. Genetic methods have emerged as the most efficient, reliable, and now cost effective way of screening samples, and providing training opportunities in molecular research, especially where infrastructure is lacking is a core part of FPI’s educational programs. Third, bacterial pathogen and RNA virus discovery will be added to our surveillance efforts, which will be highly informative to wildlife biologists, conservationists, and human health professionals in the Amazon region and worldwide.

Finally, this year we begin to incorporate ecotoxicology into the research program. In the Madre de Dios department of Peru, where the Los Amigos Conservation Hub is located, the extent of gold mining increased by almost ten times between 1993 and 2013. As a result, mercury (an element commonly used to extract gold) is accumulating in the environment and its human and wildlife inhabitants at an extraordinary rate. Mercury accumulation is associated with neurological and reproductive dysfunction, and is noted to induce lasting, sometimes generational, epigenetic changes, and the full extent of harm it may be causing to the Amazon remains elusive. In 2021 we will begin analyzing all noninvasive tissues collected for methylmercury content, and especially look forward to achieving the analysis in the field where data can be put to immediate use.

Skills and Training

  • Best practices for personal safety and wellbeing while conducting field work in forest systems
  • Forest navigation, including off-trail with portable GPS devices
  • Non-invasive sample collection
  • Animal tracking and safe capture-release techniques
  • Safe animal handling procedure focused on bats, small mammals, and birds, including a number of opportunities to participate directly in collection events
  • Sample collection, handling, labeling, and storage protocols, including the use of sterile technique to prevent self-contamination and preserve specimen integrity
  • Animal health data collection and data management
  • Sample processing and analysis for parasites/pathogens, environmental toxins, and animal health parameters (contingent on timing, please inquire for specifics)
  • Field genetics (DNA/RNA extraction, PCR, nanopore-based amplicon sequencing)
  • Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) testing
  • Methymercury testing
  • Neopterin testing
  • Microscopy

We take great pride in being able to provide high quality research and training experiences to a diverse student body. The following list is not exhaustive and is intended to give a sense of the backgrounds of participants that have found great value in this program.

  • One Health professionals or trainees
  • Veterinarians, pre-veterinary students, veterinary technicians
  • Public health students and professionals
  • Individuals interested in ecological research

We are currently recruiting participants with the following requirements. If you are uncertain if you are eligible, don’t rule out the program – please contact us to confirm first!

Minimum Requirements:

  • You must be at least 18 years of age by the time the training program begins (no upper age-limit)
  • A letter of recommendation from a source that can substantiate the participant’s experience and skills
  • A vaccine to COVID-19 (see FAQ below for details)
  • Participants must be in good physical condition, with the capability to walk 4 miles a day
  • Due to the nature of the work and weather constraints, participants must be willing to be flexible about their weekly and daily schedules

Preferred Skills:

  • Ideal participants will be Biology majors, have taken anatomy- and morphology-based courses, and/or demonstrate a strong interest in natural history.
  • Previous field experience is not required, but previous laboratory research experience is a plus
  • Participants will not be discriminated against for medical conditions they might have, if we determine that being on this project will not pose an immediate risk to their health
  • Participants must be willing to maintain long hours in the field, and return to complete data entry in the evenings.
  • Sometimes we wait and are unsuccessful – this is the nature of the work. Participants must demonstrate patience
  • Participants must be reliable – when a team is assigned to work with a group of animals, days of planning go into the execution of the protocol. Carelessness and tardiness on the part of the participant could jeopardize the entire project.
  • Participants must exhibit a willingness to adjust your schedule to animal activity patterns. This can require waking up early, sometimes by 4 or 5 am, and going to bed early, 8 or 9 pm.

The principal investigator for our Wildlife Health program is Dr. Gideon Erkenswick. He is an infectious disease specialist at Washington University in Saint Louis and co-founder of Field Projects International. Apart from his role in co-developing our longitudinal tamarin mark-recapture program and pursuing various other research interests, since 2012 he has focused on investigating the disease ecology of wildlife communities in the Southeastern Peru Amazon.

Back in the lab at UMSL, St. Louis, Gideon prepares a solution required in processing of fecal samples for parasites

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Apply online here. You will need a CV/resume and two references.

2. Once we hear from your references, we will schedule an interview with the principal investigator of your desired project

3. If accepted, you will be notified within 1 week

4. Upon acceptance, gain student access to online training modules to get prepared before you arrive.

5. Turn in medical info, vaccination record, liability waivers, etc.

6. See you in the field!

All start dates could be delayed 2-4 weeks if it is significantly more likely that participants will be able to get vaccines by that time. This decision will be made in the Spring, with final dates decided April 15. 

DO NOT buy flights until April 16 and the program dates are confirmed.

We will not take more than 1 week’s reservation fee at the time of recruitment.

Learn more about FPI and COVID-19 HERE.

Yes. This is the best way for us to ensure the safety of all participants, staff, and partners.  We cannot guarantee the health status of everyone you will encounter, so vaccines are mandatory to protect you and others you come into contact with. 

We will require proof that you have completed the full course of vaccine shots before arriving in Peru. 

If you think you will have trouble getting the vaccine in time within your country, please contact us.

Learn more about FPI and COVID-19 HERE.

Bear in mind that we require other shots as well:

  • Typhoid (all programs)
  • Yellow Fever (all programs)
  • Tetanus (all programs)
  • Rabies (Wildlife Health and Primate Monitoring programs only)

In order to train our research teams, it is necessary that everyone arrives on specific start dates. However, for some programs we are able to provide multiple start dates in order to accommodate the varying schedules of our research assistants. Note: this is not offered for all of our programs, so please pay attention to the specific start times for each program.  If you REALLY cannot make a particular start date, don’t abandon hope – email us and we can do our best to accommodate you!

There are pretty firm minimum requirements for each program (3- to 6-week commitments). These are firm because each research assistant must be trained, during which time the data they collect cannot be relied upon entirely. Anything less than the minimum time is deemed insufficient for the research assistant to contribute real data to the project. However, for most programs, you are welcome to apply for stays that are longer than the minimum period – in fact, we really do recommend and love it when you do!

Our courses have fewer enrollment requirements, and we strongly encourage anyone to apply. The research assistantships are more competitive, and there are fewer positions available.

You absolutely can apply to both a field course and an RAship program if the dates will line up! In fact, if you are accepted into the research assistantship, you can attend a field course for a lower fee (typically a $400 discount)

No, you do not need previous research experience. These are training programs designed for participants at all levels. It can be hard to acquire field experience, so we balance our teams with veteran researchers and those new to the world of field research. We seek bright and enthusiastic candidates with the right temperament to work in this challenging environment. 

The cost to participate includes lodging and all meals at the field station, transportation between Puerto Maldonado and the field station, specialized training for candidates accepted into the program, and the provision of equipment and supplies necessary to conduct this research.

A large majority of the fees paid to our training programs cover lodging fees charged by the host field station. Importantly, at the Los Amigos Biological Station lodging fees not only support the cost of running and maintaining a remote field site, but contribute to the larger mission of their parent NGO (Association for the Conservation of the Amazon Basin) to protect conservation areas, monitor deforestation, maintain wildlife corridors, and more.

We are now able to offer a peer-to-peer fundraising program for research assistants. Once accepted, you would be able to create a shareable profile on our platform. This is a team-based initiative, so half of your raised funds will go toward your own program fees, while the other half will go into pool to be split evenly among all program participants who had at least 5 donors. More details will be available during (and after) your interview. If you require help with the cost of the program, there are other options that you might pursue as well. You could start by contacting the Office of Undergraduate Research of your school, or request professional development support from your employer. Here you can explore what is available through your college/place-of-work, as well as through external funding sources. Many universities have SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) programs, which may provide stipends for students to pursue independent research. Please note that if you do find any kind of research-related funding — as many RAs have in the past — it will need to be applied for in conjunction with us, on research projects that we approve. In this case, one of our principal investigators will consult with you about developing a project that is feasible.

All participants are required to show proof of medical insurance before joining us in the field. Many travel insurance providers can assist with emergency medical coverage and emergency medical evacuation. Be certain that COVID-19 is covered in your plan. 

Some candidates may have an opportunity to win a grant that will fund their research assistantship site fees and travel. However, the grant requires them to submit a research proposal. If this is your situation, we may be able to work with you on a proposal. Contact us at info(at)fieldprojects.org and we can help you structure one. We cannot accommodate completely independent projects, but we can assist you with finding a subset of our samples or data that has not yet been full used, which you could develop further with supervision.

Yes, you can. We do not give co-authorship for collecting data alone, but we offer interested students the opportunity to work on data analyses after the summer research program, that could lead to co-authorship in the future. Many of our former field team members have gone on to become research collaborators.

Once you make your payment towards the program, we will go ahead and book your stay at the field station, which requires us to pay in advance and provides no refunds. We also block your spot and reject other applicants based on your being on the team; thus cancellations can affect team recruitment quite strongly. Nevertheless, we do recognize that circumstances sometimes demand cancellations – so we do the best that we can, given the restrictions we are under.

Here is our cancellation policy: 

  • 45 days before your start date: 45% refunded
  • Less than 45 days from your start date: no refund is possible
If you have extenuating circumstances, or applied closer than 45 days to your start date, please contact us to confirm your specific cancellation policy.

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