This experiment is part of the Wildlife Disease Association Challenge Grant Challenge Grant. Browse more projects

Assessing the pathogens of wild mammals in Los Angeles County

Raised of $3,475 Goal
Funded on 10/05/18
Successfully Funded
  • $3,531
  • 101%
  • Funded
    on 10/05/18

About This Project

Urban wildlife can harbor and transmit many diseases that have the potential to affect humans, domestic pets and other wildlife species. Unfortunately, little is known about the pathogens of wild mammals in and around Los Angeles County. We are conducting a disease survey of five common mammal species that have the potential to carry and spread pathogens that impact the health of humans, domestic pets and other wildlife.

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What is the context of this research?

To gain an understanding of wild mammal population health in the Los Angeles region, we are conducting a pathogen survey of five common mammal species that have the potential to carry zoonoses, or diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. Zoonoses are responsible for most emerging infectious diseases. We are focused on Leptospira bacteria that causes the disease leptospirosis, which can be transmitted from wildlife reservoirs to humans or domestic pets. Leptospira is considered the most widespread zoonotic disease in the world, and is potentially increasing in California due to transmission from domestic animals and wildlife. Identifying which wildlife species carry this bacteria is important because it can affect pet and human health.

What is the significance of this project?

This study will provide an initial assessment of pathogens in wild mammals throughout LA County, including Leptospira bacteria. After identifying species and areas with higher levels of exposure (more antibodies), we can target them to test for animals with active infections (using PCR to detect Leptospira DNA), as infected animals can transmit the bacteria to other individuals or species. We will also try to get bacterial genetics from target animals to help us figure out local transmission patterns. Results will inform local wildlife, veterinary and public health agencies about infections and transmission potential in these wild mammal populations.

What are the goals of the project?

We are trying to identify which wildlife populations are affected by zoonotic diseases such as Leptospira bacteria in the Los Angeles region. Funds received will be used to test blood samples for Leptospira antibodies, indicating exposure in local wildlife (coyotes, raccoons, skunks, opossums and squirrels). Wildlife samples are currently being collected through local collaborations with wildlife and animal control agencies. These samples will be assessed for fecal pathogens and population genetics (covered by other funding sources), but we still need additional funding to assess antibodies to Leptospira bacteria. This will help us to target animals for infection testing and figure out which species potentially pose a risk to pets and humans.


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This budget will cover the cost of testing 175 wildlife blood samples for Leptospira antibodies, which indicate exposure to this pathogenic bacteria. This will allow us to test at least 35 samples per species, providing us with critical data to help us understand which wildlife species are affected by this bacteria and how patterns of exposure vary across this diverse urban ecosystem. We will pair this exposure data with tests that look for Leptospira DNA in the urinary tract (PCR tests funded by another grant). We will also record any clinical signs observed in each animal (e.g. jaundice), though reservoir hosts are often asymptomatic. We have additional funding to cover the cost of sampling supplies and fecal pathogen testing (e.g. Giardia, Salmonella). All pathogen test results will be paired with host genetics to increase our knowledge of genetic diversity and connectivity, providing a more comprehensive picture of wild mammal population health in the LA region.

Endorsed by

Dr. Sarah Helman is uniquely positioned as a veterinarian and PhD candidate to tackle this interesting and important question. Leptospirosis is a disease of global importance and an important public and animal health issue. Dr. Helman's work to understand the prevalence of Leptospira exposure in urban wildlife in LA county is an important first step in evaluating the risk that these wildlife species may pose with regards to transmitting this zoonotic pathogen to the domestic animals and humans with whom they cohabitate.
This is an important study that addresses a shocking gap in our knowledge about infectious disease risks in US cities. Leptospirosis is known to be an urban disease in other countries around the world, and even in other North American cities, but we know almost nothing about its prevalence in urban wildlife in Los Angeles. Dr. Helman's work has already shown that wildlife in LA carry this pathogen, and this project will help to reveal which wildlife species, and which parts of the city, pose the greatest risks to humans and their pets.

Project Timeline

We have 100 blood samples already collected (project goal: 175+). These samples will be analyzed by the end of 2018, and the remaining samples will be collected and analyzed by the end of 2019.

Aug 21, 2018

Project Launched

Dec 31, 2018

Analyze antibodies in existing serum samples

Aug 31, 2019

Collect and analyze additional serum samples from local wildlife

Dec 31, 2019

Summarize and map the occurrence of wildlife pathogens, and share all information with local wildlife and public health officials

Meet the Team

Sarah Helman
Sarah Helman

Team Bio

I am working with an amazing, diverse team of professors and undergraduate research assistants at UCLA. If you'd like to learn more information about the rest of the team, please click here!

Sarah Helman

After obtaining my undergraduate degree from Boston University in 2006 (B.A. Biology, specialization in ecology & conservation biology), I went on to veterinary school at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (class of 2010). I spent 6 months volunteering as a veterinarian in Central America before accepting a position as a small animal veterinarian in Queensland, Australia. While working near the Great Barrier Reef I volunteered with a local sea turtle rehabilitation organization, which increased my interests in coastal environments and wildlife conservation ecology. I decided to pursue a PhD in research focusing on wildlife disease ecology, giving me the opportunity to contribute to research on pathogens that affect both wildlife and human health. I joined the James Lloyd-Smith lab at UCLA, a dedicated group of people researching the ecology of zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be passed between humans and animals, including my bacteria of interest leptospirosis). I am now utilizing my background in ecology and veterinary medicine to conduct disease surveillance mammals along the California coast. I am finishing my PhD in the Lloyd-Smith lab this June, after which I am starting a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship, working on this project with the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science to better understand anthropogenic impacts on local coyote health. These surveys are a critical step in identifying the prevalence of diseases in different mammal populations and understanding factors that impact diseases in wildlife, and results will directly inform wildlife, veterinary and public health agencies in California. I'm extremely grateful to be working on such an exciting project with an amazing team of collaborators and fantastic undergraduate students (the future doctors and scientists of the world) as we continue to learn more about local wildlife populations.

Thanks for your interest!!

Lab Notes

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Project Backers

  • 26Backers
  • 101%Funded
  • $3,531Total Donations
  • $135.81Average Donation
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