Small brown vole on the forest floor

Janine Mistrick

Research Q & A

What’s your hometown?

State College, Pennsylvania.

What are you currently working on?

My current project is focused on a European rodent species, the bank vole (Myodes glareolus), which is a natural host for Puumala hantavirus (a related virus to Sin Nombre hantavirus which is common in wild rodents in the United States). Bank vole populations naturally fluctuate in size and often peaks of population density are associated with high prevalence of hantavirus (prevalence is the proportion of voles in a population that are infected). However, there are likely other factors of the environment (beyond population density) also influencing viral prevalence. For my project, I’m working with a research team that will be experimentally manipulating wild populations of bank voles to understand how other factors such as food availability and parasitic worm infection influence hantavirus prevalence. We will be adding food to some populations and treating voles to remove their intestinal worms in other populations and comparing hantavirus prevalence to control populations with no treatment. I am particularly interested in how bank voles use space in their environment (e.g., where they are, how far they range, how many other voles they interact with in that space), how this may change when we add food or remove worms, and whether this correlates with differences we may see in viral prevalence under the different experimental manipulations.

How did you get started/what drew you to your area of study?

My background in undergrad was in ecology. I love thinking about how the entire community of an ecosystem: the plants, the animals, the geography, the climate—affects the interactions between living things and their success and behavior in a specific location. Asking questions at this big-picture level enables me to understand how even small differences between environments can have big impacts on specific species. As a lifelong lover of being outside and exploring nature, I was drawn to science as a way to understand and protect the plants and animals I was so fascinated by. One important aspect of maintaining self-sustaining populations of wildlife is ensuring their resilience against infectious diseases. By studying infectious diseases in their ecological context, I can both explore questions of how the environment affects wildlife populations and build our knowledge of how we can maintain wildlife populations despite threats of infectious diseases.

How are you working toward that goal?

I had planned to spend summer 2020 in Finland conducting field work with our research team (setting up our field experiment and manipulations, live-trapping voles, taking samples to determine hantavirus infection prevalence). Unfortunately, that travel was cancelled due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. I hope to make it to Finland in spring 2021 and spend the summer at our field site collecting data so I can keep moving forward with my proposed research.

What will your next steps/research be?

After we’ve got all the data from a field season, I plan to take the information on where each vole was captured (traps will be arranged in regular grids to monitor each population) and construct home ranges and networks of which voles were overlapping in their home ranges with others. I plan to compare these measures of space use and spatial overlap between experimental treatments to understand if food addition or worm removal affect how voles use and share space in their environment. Hopefully, this will provide insight into why hantavirus prevalence differs between the treatments.

Where are you working on research/field work?

Lammi, Finland (southern Finland, about two hours north of Helsinki).

Woman smiling and holding a small rodent

 

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