Auburn University graduate student, professor receive $415,000 grant to study invasive wild pigs’ impact on water quality

Published: September 21, 2021
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A graduate student and professor in the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences have received a $415,000 grant for their research on the impact of wild pigs on water quality.

Doctoral student Elizabeth Bradley, co-principal investigator, is working on the project with principal investigator Graeme Lockaby, professor of wetland biogeochemistry and environmental health.

For their study, “Impacts of Wild Pigs on Water Quality and Pathogen Transmission in Water,” they received the grant from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, which has the mission to protect the health of agriculture and natural resources against invasive pests and diseases, regulate genetically engineered crops and administer the Animal Welfare Act.

Bradley said the research is likely to lead to significant improvements in the way wild pigs are managed; for example, a need to prevent wild pigs from accessing water sources used by livestock.

Our research will target some of the most common waterborne, disease-causing pathogens of human, livestock and wildlife concern in the United States,” she said.

With Lockaby’s backing, Bradley has taken the rare position of co-principal investigator while she is still pursuing her graduate studies.

“While beginning work on my Ph.D. at Auburn, I became really interested in the interdisciplinary influences of wild pigs on water quality,” Bradley said. “There is so much that hasn’t been studied yet on the topic, and I was particularly interested in the pathogen transmission potential of this extremely prevalent invasive species.

“As I began developing more ideas than could reasonably be accomplished within my original project’s boundaries, Dr. Lockaby encouraged me to practice writing these ideas for grant proposals. When the opportunity arose to write a proposal for an agency that was interested in the potential spread of disease, we jumped on the opportunity to expand on our existing work.”

Bradley cites her upbringing in Alabama’s Wiregrass region as the basis of her interest in and understanding of the state’s natural resources, biodiversity and agricultural industry—and the critical threats they face.

“As an invasive species that causes $1.5 billion in damages and control costs annually, wild pigs are a significant threat to agriculture and natural resources in the U.S., and this is particularly true in Alabama, where the sale of agricultural commodities—particularly cattle and calves—generated around $5.8 billion in 2018,” she said.

As Bradley worked on her dissertation, she was shocked to learn that 87 percent of pathogens carried by wild pigs have been shown to cause disease in livestock, poultry, wildlife and humans.

“Despite this, there has been very little research into evaluating this threat in Alabama,” she said.

Dean Janaki Alavalapati emphasized the importance of this research, as well as its origin: the dissertation of a graduate student whose involvement led her to become the co-principal investigator with the professor and principal investigator, who encouraged her to pursue it.

“Elizabeth Bradley’s compelling interest on this pressing issue, along with the encouragement of Dr. Graeme Lockaby, has led her to a prestigious point in her burgeoning career,” Alavalapati said. “Along with Dr. Lockaby as her principal investigator, she will help to uncover answers to longstanding questions about the management of wild pigs in Alabama.”

The Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences is a flagship institution for natural resources-based degrees including natural resource management, geospatial and environmental informatics and sustainable biomaterials and packaging. The school serves as the backbone for Alabama’s $30 billion-plus forest, wildlife and natural resources related enterprises. Its mission is to create next-generation professionals and leaders, to develop new knowledge and disseminate science-based solutions to our clientele to improve the social, economic and environmental well-being of citizens in Alabama and beyond.