GAINESVILLE, Fla. Habitat destruction and species extinction may lead to an increase in diseases that infect humans and other species, according to a paper in the journal Nature co-authored by a University of Florida ecologist.
In the paper to be published Thursday, UF biology professor Robert D. Holt and his colleagues reported that by reviewing studies from a wide range of systems, including data from plants, animals and bacteria, they were able to relate dimensions of environmental loss, and in particular species loss, with incidence of infectious disease. The study - which was led by biologist Felicia Keesing of Bard College - focused on diseases on the rise, such as West Nile virus, Lyme disease and Hantavirus.
"The general degradation of biodiversity because of land use transformation, combined with climate change, overharvesting, and so forth, is likely to have many perverse consequences for emerging pathogens," said Holt, a UF Eminent Scholar associated with the Emerging Pathogens Institute. "You have to think both as an ecologist and an infectious disease specialist to grapple with questions like this."
Some pathogens can flourish under less biologically diverse conditions, such as in areas where top predators or other key species become extinct.
To illustrate this point, the researchers use an example study of how a dwindling population of opossums in Virginia forests contributes to the spread of Lyme disease. Opossums are able to effectively kill disease-carrying ticks when the ticks attach to them, helping to limit the population of the parasite. When opossum populations decline, tick populations flourish and feed off the Virginia white-footed mouse, which is less able to defend itself from the blood-feeding ticks. In addition, the mouse's ability to reproduce quickly and in great numbers means there are more vulnerable hosts available. Species that are resilient to human impacts may often have correlated
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