June 2914 Field Report

I’m back in England now after a successful season in the Kalahari. I spent nearly four months out there in the end on this trip, and managed to sample 125 of the meerkats. I was really pleased with getting this number as that represented a good percentage of the population at present, and included members of all groups. The purpose of the sampling season was to get familiarity with the groups, get an idea of how well the tests worked, and get some background information on the population before starting any interventions.

The field season gave me an excellent opportunity to really get an understanding of working with the meerkats, but also how the project works, and even a chance to meet some of the Friends! I visited 19 groups and learned a lot about the animals’ individual personalities – including Sachin’s habit of using the nearest human as a lookout post if I sat too close to a bush! There are lots of different research exercises going on at the KMP, and so working out who was doing what with which meerkats was a good use of time. The dynamic nature of the groups was something that I possibly wouldn’t have fully appreciated beforehand and was something that I will need to factor into my study design. A splinter group broke away from Friks’ Army whilst I was a the site and formed Ghostbusters; the establishment of this group was great to watch.

Tuberculosis work is hampered by diagnostic limitations and so working on new tests and checking on the performance of those available to us now is an important element of my whole PhD. I took blood samples from all the meerkats that I worked with. I have used these to both look for anbtibodies to TB with a new test kit developed for cattle, and also to attempt to identify markers of infection in the blood at a stage before antibodies are detectable. The latter work is ongoing and is being done in collaboration with Stellenbosch University near Cape Town. It will be very exciting if this works out as it will offer much more scope for monitoring the population. Interpreting the antibody results is going to take some time as the test has previously only been used on cattle so I can’t report these back yet. I’ll be using the results of other tests and future knowledge of what happens with these individual meerkats to calibrate the test. I’ve taken fluid samples from the tracheas of all the meerkats that I could sample, and these are currently being cultured in Stellenbosch to look for signs of active disease.

As all of the tests that I have used are either in development or being processed at the moment, I cannot give you much information on the levels of infection in the KMP population at the moment. The good news for the meerkats was that there was not much active disease over the time that I was there. Mr. Jackie was euthanased due to the disease in December, and then Boo in March – both at Pandora. Boo in particular was sad, as I had had time to see his lump developing and had seen him on a number of occasions. As I was leaving the first signs of disease were beginning in Mayans, and Catalonia was euthanised shortly after my departure. These losses are currently low compared to other years, but show that the disease is still very much alive in the population. Clinical samples form all three of these animals have been submitted for culture, and if we can grow any TB (actually quite difficult) then the bacteria will be submitted for genetic analysis. We hope that these three meerkats will be able to contribute to our understanding of the disease.

I am now working back in the UK to get various permissions for the next stage of the project. I have obtained ethical permission for the work from the University of Pretoria and have already got approval for the work carried out so far from the Royal Veterinary College, London. I’m using these to support a current application to the Department of Agriculture in South Africa to allow me to carry out the work. Other than that, my current work is based around preparing a protocol for the field. I’m in contact with both Prof. Tim Clutton-Brock and postdoc Dr. Ben Dantzer at Cambridge to work out which groups are going to be most appropriate to work with and how to go about the work. I intend to begin vaccinating pups later this year.

Christmas 2013 Field Report


Stuart Patterson (with Sachin II)

The first three months of the TB vaccination project have gone by at some speed, and have been a complete mixture of activities involving research, planning, and action. Having previously been familiar with the tuberculosis situation in cattle, I have spent a good deal of time reading up on the current knowledge base on tb in a range of other species. Relatively little is documented on this disease in meerkats, Dr. Julian Drewe’s previous work at the KMP being the notable exception, and so at this stage it felt appropriate to take a broad look across species and see what can be learned from others. Species of interest range from cattle and buffalo, through deer and boar, to possums, badgers, ferrets, and guinea pigs – a rather wide-ranging collection of species! I am particularly interested in how disease is believed to spread in these species, what diagnostic tests are available, and what work has been done to look at vaccination regimes. I have also been researching how the particular species of TB affecting our meerkats at the project fits into the family of infectious tuberculosis, the so-called Mycobacteria Tuberculosis Complex. A paper was published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases in December 2013, co-authored by Julian, describing Mycobacterium suricattae for the first time, based on samples exclusively collected at the KMP. Elements of the known structure of the bacteria relative to other members of the family are informative for deciding which tests may or may not be appropriate to try. The third strand of current literature based research is into the performance of vaccines against TB, and I shall be making an application in the new year for ethical approval to use a vaccine out here.

I travelled to Cape Town in late November and spent some time at Stellenbosch University with members of their TB department. This was a very informative experience, and opened my eyes to some of the work that is being done in South Africa on human infections with TB, as well as the animal situation. Dr. Sven Parsons at Stellenbosch, who worked with Julian on the M. suricattae paper, has agreed to work with me to develop an additional diagnostic test that we hope will better help us to diagnose TB more accurately and at an earlier stage than some of the current tests available. Such a test was one of my original aims for the project, and so it is exciting to see the first steps forward being made – I hope to have news on this in the coming months, and will keep you informed of any progress.

I moved on to the Kalahari at the start of December, and initially joined the team on any routine project captures to familiarise myself with the techniques currently in use. My intentions for this field season are to sample a broad cross-section of the habituated population in order to get an idea of the prevalence of TB both at the level of the whole project, and of the social group. This knowledge will help me to plan the next stage of my studies, as I will need to know which groups are carrying a large burden, and which are relatively free of disease. I am collecting additional blood samples to use in the diagnostic trials to be carried out at Stellenbosch. Cultures for TB will be carried out once I have finished collections this season, and can take three months to grow, so detailed results from this survey will not be known for a few months. As of Christmas, I have samples from 27 individuals spread across 8 social groups at the project.

In the past four weeks, I have only seen one individual showing clinical signs of tuberculosis, which is an improvement on the situation when I came over for a fortnight in August. Long may that continue! The reserve is currently looking very bright with plenty of greenery and yellow flowers  in evidence after better rainfall recently than in the previous two years – not quite what I was expecting for my first Southern hemisphere Christmas, but good news for the meerkats! There are plenty of new pups emerging at regular intervals, and my general impression is that all animals are in good physical condition. I shall look forward to updating you during 2014 on progress. I shall be at the project site until March, and then will be returning to the UK to plan the next stage of investigations.