The University of British Columbia
Rats have historically been responsible for the spread of certain diseases to humans because of their ability to thrive in cities. The recent outbreak of bubonic plague in Madagascar is a grim reminder that the Black Death of the Middle Ages can emerge again as a threat to public health, particularly in a globalized world experiencing rapid urbanization.
Canada, like many other countries, has no shortage of urban rats. Yet surprisingly, there have been virtually no Canadian studies on the fleas, lice and other ectoparasites that these rats carry and the disease risks to their human neighbours.
Fortunately, Kaylee Byers has a passion for parasites. The evolutionary biologist at the University of British Columbia is one of the youngest members of the Vancouver Rat Project Team at the University of British Columbia which is conducting Canada’s first major study to determine the health risks posed by rat populations.
Rat infestations are particularly problematic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where mild climate, high human population density and poverty combine to create an ideal habitat for rats. The area is also bordered by one of the country’s largest international shipping ports, which could serve as an entry point for rats and their hitchhiking parasites from abroad.
Byers’ PhD project is studying which parasites rats carry, and undertaking DNA sequencing to identify rat family trees, which will help reveal how rats’ movement and social structures influence the spread of disease. The holder of both a Vanier and Killam scholarship is also collaborating with pest control professionals and the City of Vancouver to inform pest control strategies that reduce infestations and the spread of disease.
To distribute or publish photos that appear in the NSERC Top Researchers section of the Media Room: