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Carol Anne Nichols

Studying mongooses leads to breakthroughs in disease ecology

Carol Anne Nichols is a passionate, emerging ecologist with a mission to share her conservation fervor with researchers around the world. A graduate student in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech, Nichols studies the manner in which behavior can transmit disease in banded mongooses (Mungos mungo), small mammals that are similar to meerkats. These mongooses are native to Africa, and Nichols travels halfway across the world to Botswana to study them. 

lady talks to a group of school children
Carol Anne Nichols (right) teaches local schoolchildren about camera traps that will take photos of banded mongooses in Kasane, Botswana.

Banded mongooses have a very strong sense of smell and use their scent to communicate with their troop mates. They are typically friendly and social animals. However, groups of mongooses (called troops) are very territorial; they use their scent to mark their troop’s territory with great enthusiasm. A troop of mongooses will go out of their way to make sure they never interact with other troops.

Mongooses use their keen sense of smell for many helpful things; they find food, avoid danger and rival troops, and communicate with other mongooses. However, this sharp olfactory sense has a darker side, as mongooses can become infected with a serious disease as a result.

The banded mongoose troops that Nichols studies fall into two categories: urban and wild. The urban troops live close to human settlements and are far more sociable with other animals they encounter than the troops that live in the wildlife reserve.

The urban troops enjoy more plentiful food and water than the wild-living animals, but they are more susceptible to disease. These urban troops occasionally become infected with serious strains of tuberculosis that they transmit through their olfactory glands. A mongoose with the disease may mark something, and the next healthy mongoose that goes and smells that scent mark will likely contract tuberculosis.

A banded mongoose in an urban environment. Photo courtesy of Carol Anne Nichols.

Nichols’s work is centered around studying the behavioral mechanisms aiding in the spread of tuberculosis. She can identify a sick mongoose by simply looking at an image. Banded mongooses are not an endangered species, and the amount of disease, while heightened in urban troops, is not at a critical level. Nevertheless, Nichols’s fascinating research has many applications for  wildlife conservation, disease pathology, and even human disease transmission.

Nichols has several means by which she keeps track of her troops. She has the ability to work in Blacksburg, Virginia, and in Kasane, Botswana (she sorely misses Botswana on snowy Blacksburg days, she said). Her fieldwork in Botswana  involves her travelling through Chobe National Park to find evidence of mongoose activity, collect samples, and trap the occasional mongoose in order to put a radio collar on. 

Banded mongoose
A banded mongoose wearing a radio collar in the Chobe National Park. Photo courtesy of Carol Anne Nichols.

The process for trapping mongooses is a lengthy but humane one. The team places chicken (a mongoose’s favorite food) in a trap, and a registered veterinarian assists with the application of the collars. The radiocollars then help researchers track the individual. Nichols explained that the urban mongooses are much easier to collar, as they are more accustomed to human presence and therefore more trusting. The wild mongooses are a craftier bunch, Nichols explained, as she related a tale of a wild mongoose that dug its way under the trap to abscond with the chicken, presumably to eat it and have a hearty nap in its den.

Back in Blacksburg, Nichols has more work to do. She analyzes the  data collected in Botswana and works with her professor, Dr. Kathleen Alexander, whose National Science Foundation-funded research team studies tuberculosis transmission at the human-wildlife interface.

Mongoose on a screenshot.
Several mongooses caught on one of Nichols' camera traps.

Nichols’s work has great implications for the future of her field and for the future of wildlife conservation. The connection between urbanization and the behaviors that spread disease can be applied to human populations as well as to mongoose populations, as the animals spread disease more easily when they are in closer quarters.

Nichols speaks highly of the way Botswana protects its natural resources. Because tourism is the second largest industry in Botswana, great care is taken to preserve wildlife habitats. The national park harbors many animals besides banded mongooses, and Nichols delights in seeing the interactions among the different populations of creatures. Her research allows her to see a vibrant ecosystem that is sheltered from human encroachment, and her desire is to see more people--scientist or not--get excited about this kind of conservation effort.

Article written by Amy Foltz in ​ENGL 4824​: Science Writing in Spring 2018 ​as part of a collaborative project between Fralin, the Department of English, the Center for Communicating Science, and Technology-enhanced Learning and Online ​Strategies (TLOS). Learn more.