Biodiversity Conservation and Health at the Human-Domestic Animal-Wildlife Interface in Madagascar

2021 Faculty Research Award

Award Period: 2021-2023

Princeton professor C. Jessica E. Metcalf and postdoctoral researchers Fidisoa Rasambainarivo and Benjamin Rice will lead this project evaluating the impact of domestic-animal pathogens on the biodiversity of native wildlife in Madagascar and — in light of COVID-19 — the potential consequences for human health. The researchers will focus on the parasite Toxoplasma gondii transmitted by domestic cats, which infects warm-blooded animals and can cause severe disease in many species, as well as birth defects in humans. The researchers will collect samples from endangered carnivores within the island’s protected habitats to determine the extent of infection and the impact of T. gondii on species’ health. They will build on these data to help design potential control programs to limit initial T. gondii infection in housecats for wildlife conservation and human health. At the same time, the researchers will document the diversity of pathogens found in non-human wild and domestic mammals across the island, from within human communities to the interior of protected habitats, compiling data on the transmission modes that drive the proliferation of pathogens in Madagascar’s native carnivores.

This project will build upon facilities and contacts Metcalf established during her 2018 Urban Challenge project that sought to model and contain the spread of Newcastle disease among small-scale poultry farms around Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo.

Fidisoa Rasambainarivo (right) collecting biological samples from a fossa, an endemic carnivore on Madagascar, to assess its exposure to Toxoplasma gondii and other pathogens. Photo courtesy of Fidisoa Rasambainarivo

Educational Impact

The project will support up to four Princeton undergraduates through the HMEI Environmental Internship Program, who will engage in on-site field, laboratory and computational activities with Princeton and Malagasy scientists. Interns will work in various communities, national parks and reserves in Madagascar monitoring and collecting samples from domestic animals and wildlife. Metcalf also will add a Planetary Health module to the Global Health Program undergraduate course, “Epidemiology: An Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective,” (to be taught by Rice in 2022) and include guest speakers with expertise in conservation, animal and human health.

Students in the course also will have an opportunity to work virtually with conservation students in Madagascar on a policy brief for the Madagascar National Parks and Ministry of Environment that assesses the pathogenic threats to Madagascar’s biodiversity, the risk of T. gondii infection in threatened carnivores, and the potential for mitigation strategies.

Participating Departments

Collaborating Institutions        


Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs; HMEI Associated Faculty

Research Associates

Postdoctoral Research Associate, High Meadows Environmental Institute
Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology