3) Understanding spatiotemporal dynamics of chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer

White-tailed deer in Arkansas showing the typical “wasting” sign of CWD.

Mentors: Dr. Elizabeth M. Warburton and Marcelo Jorge
Abstract: Since it was first detected in free-ranging elk in the USA in 1981, chronic wasting disease (CWD) has spread to multiple cervid species, including moose, mule deer, and white-tailed deer, across 30 states. In some locations where this deadly disease has spread, more than 50% of the local deer population is infected. CDW is a prion disease, or transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSEs), caused by infectious proteins similar to those that cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow disease”) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. Like all TSEs, CWD is a progressive, fatal disease that affects the brain, spinal cord, and many other tissues. Unlike some other TSEs, CWD can be either directly transmitted by close contact between hosts or environmentally transmitted. The combination of these prions possibly remaining infectious in soil for years and the approximately year-long asymptomatic period in hosts makes understanding the spread of this disease through the white-tailed deer population especially challenging. We use camera-trap, telemetry, and capture-mark-recapture data from our study sites in NW Arkansas to understand the spatiotemporal dynamics of CWD infection in white-tailed deer. By using computational methods such as Bayesian hierarchical models, individual-based models, and machine learning we seek to characterize and predict disease spread. We then communicate our findings to conservation professionals so they can better manage this deadly disease in free-ranging cervids.
Is the project computational, empirical, or both? This project is mainly computational but also uses field-collected data. Students will be involved in analyzing camera-trap, telemetry, and capture-mark-recapture data as well as creating simulations of disease spread.