I have had the pleasure of working with Tierra Wilson for a couple years at the Gorilla Foundation. Since then, she’s moved off to veterinary school and I to graduate school. We’ve kept in touch and I was elated to hear that she’s going to Rwanda earlier this summer to study the mountain gorillas there. I didn’t know exactly what she’s up to until I came across Lucy Spelman’s blog post in Discover’s Quest: Gorillas in Peril.
The post, “Tierra’s Summer Project: Gorilla Saliva,” documents Tierra research project from inception to finish. She rounded up her own funding to travel and stay in Rwanda where she created a research project to detect infectious pathogens like herpes and influenza in the gorilla populations. As you may have read on this blog, infectious agents, especially pathogens from ‘human caused origins’ have caused a massive number of great ape deaths — especially in gorillas. Therefore, for any successful conservation effort, it is vital to be screening gorilla populations for any signs of infection. Current methods involve sampling fecal matter but previous research has shown that biomarkers for infection can be detected from saliva. After unsuccessful trials of sampling saliva from anesthetized gorillas, Tierra modified her approach using a method inspired from a publication on saliva collection in chimpanzees.
She designed a ‘a mesh bag with a juice-soaked rope,’ which the gorillas would chew to extract the juice from. The device actually sounds a lot like the enrichment activities she and the other gorilla caregivers like I did at the Gorilla Foundation. And it worked really well, she was able to detect alpha-amylase, an enzyme that is used as a biomarker for stress, i.e. a response to inflammation and infection.
She extended her methods to wild populations, where she and the team, sampled several populations. When the Hirwa and Group 13 gorilla groups came down with respiratory disease, she also collected samples from them.
Her research project has since ended in Rwanda, for now, and the samples are currently being shipped back for more in depth analyses on various viruses, microbes, cortisol levels and gorilla DNA. I’m very proud to hear about her work she has done — especially on other primatology blog’s like Lucy Spelman’s. I’m even proud to say I know, “Hey, I know her and worked with her!”