Ebola outbreaks killing thousands of gorillas and chimpanzees

Apr 16, 2007

Why have large outbreaks of Ebola virus killed tens of thousands of gorillas and chimpanzees over the last decade? Observations published in the May issue of The American Naturalist provide new clues, suggesting that outbreaks may be amplified by Ebola transmission between ape social groups. The study provides hope that newly developed vaccines could control the devastating impact of Ebola on wild apes.

Direct encounters between gorilla or chimpanzee social groups are rare. Therefore, when reports of large ape die-offs first surfaced in the late 1990s, outbreak amplification was assumed to be through "massive spillover" from some unknown reservoir host. The new study, conducted by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Cambridge University, and Stony Brook University at three sites in northern Republic of Congo, suggests that Ebola transmission between ape groups might occur through routes other than direct social encounter.

For instance, as many as four different gorilla groups fed in the same fruit tree on a single day. Thus, infective body fluids deposited by one group might easily be encountered by a subsequent group. Chimpanzees and gorillas also fed simultaneously in the same fruit tree at least once every seven days.

The study also provided the first evidence that gorillas from one social group closely inspect the carcasses of gorillas from other groups. Contact with corpses at funerals is a major mechanism of Ebola transmission in humans. Together with other recent observations on patterns of gorilla mortality, these results make a strong case that transmission between ape social groups plays a central role in Ebola outbreak amplification.

The study has important implications for controlling the impact of Ebola, which has killed roughly one quarter of the world gorilla population. "It means that vaccinating one gorilla does not protect only that gorilla, it also protects gorillas further down the transmission chain," said Peter Walsh of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the lead author on the study. "Thus, protecting remaining ape populations may not require vaccinating a high proportion of individuals, as many people naively assume." Walsh and collaborators are currently searching for funding to implement a vaccination program using one of the several vaccines that have now successfully protected laboratory monkeys from Ebola.

Source: University of Chicago

Explore further: Himalayan Viagra fuels caterpillar fungus gold rush

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New park protects 15,000 gorillas

Jan 31, 2013

The Republic of Congo has declared a new national park that protects a core population of the 125,000 western lowland gorillas discovered by WCS in 2008.

Gorilla genome sequenced

Mar 07, 2012

The assembly of the gorilla genome was announced today, March 7, by a multi-national group of researchers. The gorilla is the last genus of the living great apes to have its genome decoded. While confirming ...

Recommended for you

Himalayan Viagra fuels caterpillar fungus gold rush

12 hours ago

Overwhelmed by speculators trying to cash-in on a prized medicinal fungus known as Himalayan Viagra, two isolated Tibetan communities have managed to do at the local level what world leaders often fail to ...

Science casts light on sex in the orchard

15 hours ago

Persimmons are among the small club of plants with separate sexes—individual trees are either male or female. Now scientists at the University of California, Davis, and Kyoto University in Japan have discovered ...

Researchers capture picture of microRNA in action

15 hours ago

Biologists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have described the atomic-level workings of "microRNA" molecules, which control the expression of genes in all animals and plants.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.