Friends of the Island Fox is happy to announce Alexandra DeCandia, Ph.D. is the recipient of FIF's 2020 Research Grant.
You may remember DeCandia's article from April 2020 regarding her doctoral work at Princeton University: Mites, Microbes, and Cancer in Santa Catalina Island Foxes. Microbes can be found on the skin, in the digestive system, and in connection with the body's openings.
A healthy animal has a diversity of microbes. In this way, a single island fox is like an island. If something should happen to the biodiversity of microbes on an individual, the ecosystem on that individual might become out of balance. Some microbes might thrive, while others perish. An imbalance of microbes can impact an animal's overall health.
When island foxes on a specific island go through a near-extinction population bottleneck, there is a potential for a loss of microbe diversity that can be passed on to surviving island foxes.
DeCandia investigated if there was a connection between the diversity of microbes on Catalina Island foxes and an unusual prevalence of cancer in this subspecies.
|Looking into island fox ear canal|
What she found was "evidence of disrupted microbial communities in mite-infected ear canals that may contribute to sustained inflammation." Inflammation can play a role in cancer and this microbial imbalance may be connected to why Santa Catalina Island foxes are the only island foxes known to develop cancerous tumors in their ear canals.
DeCandia's work was published in Molecular Ecology and when she presented her findings at the Annual Island Fox Conservation Working Group Meeting in May of this year, everyone was intrigued. A healthy microbial biome is vital to healthy digestion, immune response to disease, behavior, and even development. Because island foxes on five islands have been through population bottlenecks, where the number of surviving individuals was very low, there is a potential that island foxes on other islands may have disrupted microbial communities as well.
As island foxes are counted and given health checks across the islands this year, they are also getting swabbed for microbes in their ear canals and at their anuses. DeCandia describes the process as "similar to cleaning your ears with a cotton swab, except you don't throw away the swab afterwards." The swab samples will be sent to DeCandia at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington D.C.
FIF Research Grant funding will be used to extract DNA samples and process DNA sequencing to identify the various microbes in island fox ear canals and digestive systems.
|DeCandia in the lab|
This investigation provides a unique opportunity to do comparative analyses between subspecies of island foxes on different islands. DeCandia hopes to:
- survey variation of microbes within island foxes on each island
- characterize the differences between islands
- identify the drivers of ear canal tumors on Santa Catalina Island
This work is at the cutting edge of science and may have important consequences for the long term survival of the island fox.
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This is Science, For Fox Sake!