Researchers examine disease in mountain lions

A Colorado State University research team is examining how illnesses are transmitted in mountain lion populations in an effort to manage future outbreaks of diseases, such as feline leukemia virus, that could threaten the species.

Susan VandeWoude, a research veterinarian and associate dean for research in the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, is leading a team that recently received $2 million from the National Science Foundation for a five-year study of the big cats.

The project is expected to shed light on the complex outcomes of human impact – both wildlife-management practices and land development – for a particularly sensitive species of wild cats in the United States. These interwoven consequences, which the scientists have identified through earlier research, include changes in puma populations, population movement and disease dynamics that could have implications for pumas and other cat species, including housecats.

Disease paths

The new research is designed to further understand how people affect puma movements in the wild and the way that disease travels through populations, providing insight about wildlife management used from Florida to California.

For example, when an endangered subspecies called the Florida panther was nearing extinction in the Everglades in the mid-1990s, wildlife managers imported Texas cougars to breed with their cousins. Managers hoped to rebuild the population. For the most part, it worked: Officials estimated last year that this cat population is about five times larger than it was two decades ago.

Other states have used different tactics to deal with the species referred to interchangeably as pumas, cougars or mountain lions. California has banned the hunting of pumas for decades. Hunters on Colorado’s Western Slope are asked to avoid killing female lions in places with low population.

Multidisciplinary effort

Joining VandeWoude in the interdisciplinary research at CSU are Kevin Crooks, a professor in the Warner College of Natural Resources, and Chris Funk, an associate professor in the College of Natural Sciences.

Each researcher brings distinctive expertise to the project: VandeWoude is an authority on feline diseases; her discoveries include uncovering a new family of feline herpesviruses that infects housecats, pumas and bobcats. Crooks, a wildlife ecologist, specializes in the effects of manmade disturbances on the natural world, so he is focusing on how puma habitat and travel corridors have been affected by urban and housing development.

“Large carnivores like pumas tend to be especially sensitive to human impacts,” Crooks said. “They’re often the first to feel the effects, like a canary in the coal mine.”

Funk will use cutting-edge techniques to compare the genetics of various puma populations so that scientists may assess the degree to which they have interbred – providing evidence about their travel patterns.

“It’s hard to track how they move, so we use genetics to infer where they’ve gone,” Funk said. “If you have two groups with similar genes, you can infer that they have interacted.”

Other researchers

Two faculty members from other institutions, Meggan Craft of the University of Minnesota and Scott Carver of the University of Tasmania, will perform the mathematical and statistical analyses needed to create models of how disease is expected to spread geographically through puma populations.

Other collaborators include Dr. Holly Ernest and colleagues from University of California, Davis, and a large number of wildlife managers, field biologists and veterinarians working for state and federal agencies.

The team will examine how wildlife management approaches influence disease transmission. In the case of the Florida panther, for instance, did the imported Texas cougars bring pathogens with them that affected the panthers?

“We’re studying the effects of that intervention, and the intersection of that with landscape dynamics,” VandeWoude said, citing rivers, highways and cities as possible barriers to puma movement and factors in disease transmission.

She explained that researchers can track the speed and direction of virus movement by testing various puma populations and comparing results. For example, the team will try to predict what pathways diseases like the feline leukemia virus will take when spreading through a population, and which groups of pumas are particularly susceptible to outbreaks. The models the team generates will also inform predictions about how disease could spread to pets and humans.

Video game on tap

As an outreach project, one of Crooks’ former postdoctoral students will create a video game that simulates disease movements and lets players manipulate puma populations to help them avoid infection.

The new study is a continuation of a project that VandeWoude and Crooks recently completed on disease transfer within three cat species, in which they compiled a database of puma blood samples and pathogens.

“We now have data on a high percentage of the puma population in our study areas, partly because they are so limited in number,” VandeWoude said.

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The Earth Sciences need women!

In the United States, men outnumber women in many science and engineering fields by nearly 3 to 1. In fields like physics or the geosciences, the gender gap can be even wider. Emily Fischer, professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, is the lead investigator on a $1.7 million National Science Foundation grant to close that gap in the geosciences, which encompass mining and geology, atmospheric sciences, issues related to natural resource management, natural disaster forecasting, and oceanography. Developing a program Fischer and her team intend to bolster the number of female undergraduate students earning degrees in the geosciences or going on to graduate school in these fields. They are developing a program to be piloted on the Colorado Front Range and in the Carolinas. Team members include: Silvia Sara Canetto, CSU psychology professor; Paul R. Hernandez, professor of educational psychology at West Virginia University; Laura Sample McMeeking, associate director of CSU’s STEM Center; Rebecca Barnes, professor of environmental sciences at Colorado College; Sandra Clinton, professor of geography and earth sciences at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and Manda Adams, a professor associated with the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who is currently on an appointment at NSF (working with the geoscience project team as part of her independent research and development program). Emily Fischer “We want to build the pipeline of female students entering the geosciences,” Fischer said. “Females are underrepresented in the geosciences – at about 16 percent of the workforce. That is the picture in my field too - women represent about 15 percent of atmospheric scientists. It’s even lower when you get into geology.” 2015 and beyond Starting in 2015, the team will recruit 50 first-year female students from CSU, the University of Colorado-Boulder, and the University of Wyoming to attend a workshop where they will learn about educational and career opportunities and meet peers with similar interests. The team will simultaneously recruit a cohort of students from the University of North Carolina Charlotte, Duke University, and the University of South Carolina. From there, the students will be mentored in person by local members of the Earth Science Women’s Network, a nonprofit organization. In addition, female students will have access to a web platform that will enable national-scale peer mentoring. “We are patterning this intervention after outreach programs that we know have been successful with advanced undergraduate and graduate-level women,” Fischer said. “We want to see if this can work with female undergraduate students and get more of them interested in pursuing careers in the geosciences.” Canetto, Hernandez, and Sample McMeeking also will evaluate the program’s effectiveness. The goal is to design an effective, inexpensive recruitment and retention program that can be a model for other universities. “There is evidence that mentoring seems to be an effective tool for women in various disciplines, but there is no scientific data for women in the geosciences,” Fischer said. “We want to collect real data from these students. We want to understand whether mentoring works for undergraduate women in the geosciences and exactly how beneficial these efforts could be.”

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Gamers know grammar, and aren't afraid to use it

Gamers use good grammar? Surprising as it might sound, that's one the findings from studies of online gaming chat led by a CSU researcher.

The studies found that millennials – notorious for misused language and sloppy typing – are actually more accomplished communicators than many of us believed.

“Online chat – especially in games – is often thought of as eroding the typing and self-expression skills of younger people, but our study shows that they are very expressive and do pay attention to how they communicate both with text and non-verbally with their avatars,” said Rosa Mikeal Martey, the study’s lead author and a professor in Colorado State University’s Department of Journalism and Technical Communication.

Multi-tiered study

The studies, conducted by researchers at CSU, Syracuse University, Concordia University and the University at Albany, analyzed the chat, movement and appearance of 201 participants as they played a custom-built quest game in Second Life — a 3D virtual world where users can design their own environments and avatars. A follow-up study compared these findings to 375 players of the multiplayer online game World of Warcraft. The studies set out to see if people’s age is revealed in how they communicate and interact.

The study’s Second Life participants ranged in age from 18 to 64 with an average age of 37, and World of Warcraft participants were between 18 and 54 with an average age of 29. Their appearance, movement, chat and mouse clicks were recorded as they played a two-hour quest game designed by the researchers in each world.

Gamers looking for clues

“People often have a sense of how old other people are after spending time with them online, even if they’ve never met offline – they notice things like how polite people are, their language use and how they express themselves,” said Martey, who became an accomplished World of Warcraft player before immersing herself in the gaming study.

“It’s not just what people say, it’s the types of phrases they use and how they visually interact in virtual space that serve as cues about people’s age online,” says study co-author Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse.

Age differences noted

The researchers found that in both Second Life and World of Warcraft, older players were more polite and less emotionally expressive than younger players. In Second Life, older players also used avatars that were more stereotypically attractive than younger players and about half the number of emoticons. In World of Warcraft, younger players jumped about twice as much, moved around 15% more and moved backwards 30% more than older ones.

 “As we found in in our studies of gender, movement reveals a lot about people online – in fact, if you combine gender and age, you see even more clearly that the ones who jump, move backward, and wander around more are most likely to be men under 30,” Martey explained. “Younger players are taking full advantage of the expressive possibilities of the avatar, not just chat – they use that digital self to express themselves just as much if not more than they use words.”

Authors of the study include: Rosa Mikeal Martey, Colorado State University; Jennifer Stromer-Galley, Syracuse University; Mia Consalvo, Concordia University; Jingsi Wu, Hofstra University; Jaime Banks, University of Toronto; Mississauga Tomek Strzalkowski, University at Albany.

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CSU, Google, & Environmental Defense measure methane

Google carFor the past year, Google Street View cars roaming Indianapolis, Boston and New York's Staten Island have captured more than just images. With the help of a Colorado State University team led by Professor Joe von Fischer, the vehicles also measured where and how much methane is leaking from the miles of underground pipelines that deliver natural gas to customers in those cities.

The CSU team helped develop the routes the Google cars drove, and the sophisticated data analysis tools to interpret those methane measures for the project, which is being led by the Environmental Defense Fund.

EDF used the data collected from more than 15 million data points to create interactive maps that depict the thousands of leaks beneath the streets of the three cities. “This complex project started with a rather simple question: can we map and quantify methane leaks in an urban environment?” said von Fischer, an associate professor of biology at CSU. “Researchers, including me, have measured methane concentrations in cities before. The challenge has been the ability to translate methane concentration into understandable leak rate estimates.  This effort not only makes a significant scientific advancement, it helps raise awareness of how much methane is escaping from pipelines in our cities.” A history of studying methane EDF approached von Fischer, who has long studied methane gas and developed new techniques in which to measure natural and man-made sources, to participate in the project nearly two years ago. Several years ago, von Fischer and a CSU undergraduate student designed a sensor system, mounted it to a car and drove around Fort Collins to see if they could measure methane leaks in the city.

For the current project, the CSU team also executed some “controlled release” experiments that enabled researchers to understand how the vehicle systems would perceive leaks of different sizes.  Based in part on these findings, they wrote computer code to analyze data from the vehicles.

CSU team members included Jay Ham, a professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences; David Theobald, an adjunct professor and consultant with Conservation Science Partners; Dan Cooley,  a professor in the Department of Statistics; and Russ Schumacher, a professor in the Department of  Atmospheric Sciences. A tool for utilitiesvon Fischer

One of the goals of the EDF project is to provide utilities with another tool to better detect leaks and prioritize which pipes need to be repaired first.

Utilities regularly monitor systems for leaks, which can pose a safety hazard if they are large enough or close to a building.  If enough natural gas accumulates in a small, confined area and something ignites it, it can cause an explosion. (Natural gas is odorized so people will notice a major leak.) Smaller leaks usually are fixed when pipelines or infrastructure are replaced. That’s because, inspecting miles of pipeline for leaks requires a lot of specialized personnel and equipment and was very time consuming. And while small leaks aren’t considered a safety hazard, they can have a big impact on the environment. Methane is the primary component in natural gas, and is much more potent than carbon dioxide. “One leak on its own isn’t bad, but when you have thousands of small leaks, it adds up,” von Fischer said. “Climate scientists largely agree that methane and other super-charged pollutants are intensifying the rate of the Earth’s warming and negatively affecting our climate.” Von Fischer said the analytical tools the CSU team helped develop for EDF and Google’s methane mapping project makes it much easier to find and assess the size of a leak. He added that the Google Street View cars won’t replace the detailed surveys utilities perform but will complement them. “We still need those guys on the streets looking for every leak they can find,” he said. “But their results aren’t made public, and so the public can’t see how well its infrastructure compares to other cities. This project makes that data visible.” A wide disparity The data collected so far already shows a wide disparity in the amount of methane leaking in Indianapolis, Boston and Staten Island.  Their results show very few leaks in Indianapolis, just one every 150 miles, compared to about one every mile in Boston. “There’s a big difference,” von Fischer said. “It is clear that the aggressive pipeline replacement program in Indianapolis has made a big difference in the leak frequency.” This study is one of several EDF has launched since 2012 to better understand where methane is leaking in the nation’s vast natural gas infrastructure. Leaks occur across the natural gas supply chain, from drilling to production, processing to transmission and delivery to consumers.Some of the EDF studies involve industrial partners, many of which are natural gas companies.In addition to the Google project, CSU is involved in two EDF-sponsored methane projects. CSU researchers are leading efforts to quantify methane emissions from the gathering and processing and transmission and storage portions of the natural gas cycle.

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Traffic noise puts prairie dogs on high alert

The cost of living near a freeway may be on the rise, for wildlife.

Expanding roadways and traffic world-wide is a key contributor to habitat fragmentation, and researchers at Colorado State University have discovered that anthropogenic noise from road traffic alters the foraging and vigilance behavior of a free-ranging mammal.

Crucial component [caption id="attachment_928" align="alignright" width="300"]Prairie Dog When prairie dogs hear traffic, they spend more time on high alert for predators rather than foraging for food. Photo credit Graeme Shannon.[/caption]

Prairie dogs are a crucial component of the American prairie and necessary for a healthy ecosystem, but are commonly overlooked from a conservation perspective. They are considered highly tolerant of non-lethal human activities, but have suffered huge declines due to habitat loss, poisoning, shooting and disease outbreaks. The prairie dog is a keystone species whose survival is crucial for other prairie species, like the endangered black-footed ferret.

The team conducted research on rural prairie dog populations in Colorado, and utilized audio playback experiments to simulate colony exposure to highway traffic noise and isolate the impacts. The study was published in Animal Behaviour, and provides the first experimental evidence that noise from road traffic can degrade habitat and impact the behavior of this keystone species.

Substantial effects “Over the next 40 years, road travel is set to double worldwide. The effects on biodiversity from this expansion are likely to be substantial, and it is crucial that we are able to quantify the behavioral and fitness costs of different road-related disturbance factors, such as noise, in order to design and implement effective mitigation measures,” said Graeme Shannon, a postdoctoral wildlife ecologist in CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources and the paper’s lead author. The study found that the exposure to noise causes behaviors similar to those that would be experienced with elevated risk of predation, for example, reduced foraging and increased alertness. However, there is also the possibility that vocal signals used to alert other prairie dogs to approaching threats may be masked by the traffic noise. “It’s very similar to when we try to conduct a conversation alongside a busy street - it can be difficult to hear what the other person is saying,” Shannon explained. Prairie dogs make good subject animals because they live in high density colonies and are cognitively advanced. They are social creatures that use complex vocal communication, so the findings could lead to future discoveries with other social species. Global implications “The fact that we found significant changes in their behavior has implications for this species and also more disturbance sensitive animals that may be ultimately lost from habitats that get too noisy,” Shannon said. “Our findings have global implications as road traffic and construction increases worldwide.”

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Nanoparticles may aid oil recovery, frack fluid tracking

Two Colorado State University researchers are examining how nanoparticles move underground, knowledge that could eventually help improve recovery in oil fields and discover where hydraulic fracking chemicals travel.

Vivian Li, assistant professor in the Department of Design and Merchandising, and William Sanford, associate professor in the Department of Geosciences,are trying to find patterns in how certain nanoparticles move underground. If successful, they could train the nanoparticles to indicate when specific chemicals are present in the subsurface, including those found in underground water deposits. These modified "smart" nanoparticles, known as tracers, could sense high pH levels or the presence of hydraulic fracking chemicals.

In the initial phase of their research, funded through a grant from the CSU Water Center, Li and Sanford are testing their specially engineered carbon nanoparticle to see how it moves through the ground. Once they understand how the particle travels through a number of subsurface environments, it could eventually be used to search for chemicals in some of earth's most hostile underground environments.

"We also want to see how nanoparticles affect the composition of the natural environment and how certain elements found in the ground alter the composition of the nanoparticle," explained Li.

Temperature, water saturation, and the physical and chemical composition of the soil are the primary factors that can alter the movement of nanoparticles.

Controversial practice

Hydraulic fracturing of wells has caused a political firestorm in recent years, as Colorado residents have questioned the health and safety risks of injecting chemicals into the ground to free oil and natural gas. There is still debate about whether these chemicals are harming the environment, and some question where the chemicals go after injection, fearing they may be contaminating groundwater supplies.

Using tracers, Li and Sanford theorize they could inject the particles into the earth near fracking sites and allow them to follow subsurface water flow paths to a distance away from the injection site. If the recovered tracers are fluorescent, they are reacting to the fracking chemical they were engineered to detect, demonstrating the path those chemicals traveled.

In continuation of Li's post-doctorate work, these tracers could also be used to improve the recovery of oil from reserves deep within the earth, which would allow scientists to increase the amount of oil that can be pumped, saving time and money on drilling new wells.

"Only about 50 percent of the earth's oil reservoirs are being tapped," Li said. "With the potential to quickly drain the current oil reserves, the need to improve oil recovery and find the other hidden 50 percent becomes extremely important."

Harsh conditions

However, these reservoirs are often very deep in the ground and can be home to extreme conditions that make it difficult for nanoparticles to survive. Many nanoparticles that have been developed cannot withstand the high salinity of the oil reserve and deteriorate in the process of finding the oil. However, Li and Sanford believe they have engineered a nanoparticle that can both survive in the harsh environment and keep its smart abilities for a long period of time.

"The uses of these nanoparticles are potentially quite extensive," explained Sanford. "By creating smart particles we can see how contaminants are distributed in the subsurface, the recovery of economic minerals in water can be done, and the uses in the oil industry are many-fold."

Still in the early stages of the research, Li and Sanford are patenting their new nanoparticle and continue to test it in preparation for studies in the field.

The Department of Design and Merchandising is in CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. The Department of Geosciences is part of the Warner College of Natural Resources.

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