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News Release 13-118

Interplay of Ecology, Infectious Disease, Wildlife and Human Health Featured at Annual Conference

Scientists discuss spillover of infectious diseases among wildlife, domestic animals and people; find links between environment and human health

A gray catbird caught in a research mistnet

Birds and West Nile virus, a connection? A gray catbird caught in a research mistnet may tell.
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June 28, 2013

West Nile virus, Lyme disease and hantavirus. All are infectious diseases spreading in animals and in people. Is human interaction with the environment somehow responsible for the increase in these diseases?

The ecology and evolution of infectious diseases will be highlighted at two symposia at the Ecological Society of America's annual meeting, held from Aug. 5-9 in Minneapolis, Minn.

One symposium will address human influences on viral and bacterial diseases through alteration of landscapes and ecological processes.

Another will focus on the emerging field of eco-epidemiology, which seeks to integrate biomedical and ecological research approaches to addressing human health threats.

Much of the research presented is funded by the joint National Science Foundation- (NSF) National Institutes of Health Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID) Program.

"These sessions show that basic research is critical for managing disease threats," said Sam Scheiner, NSF EEID program director. "They also showcase the need to link scientists with public health professionals."

The first symposium, on Monday, Aug. 5, will take a deeper look at the connections between human activities and infectious diseases.

Though we often think of diseases as simply being "out there" in the environment, human actions--such as feeding birds--can influence the abundance, diversity and distribution of wildlife species and thus, infectious diseases.

"New human settlements, the spread of agriculture and the increasing proximity of people, their pets and livestock to wild animals increase the probability of disease outbreaks," said session organizer Courtney Coon of the University of South Florida.

"We're interested in learning more about how urban and other environments that humans dramatically change affect the susceptibility and transmission potential of animals that are hosts or vectors of disease."

What are the key determinants of spillover of wildlife diseases to domestic animals and humans?

Why is the prevalence of pathogens in wildlife in urban areas often altered by counterparts in less developed environments?

Speakers will address these and other questions.

The second symposium, on Tuesday, Aug. 6, will continue the theme of infectious diseases, but with an eye toward integrating biomedical and ecological approaches into the investigation and control of emerging diseases.

"Environmental processes and human health are linked, and we'd like to chart a future in which ecologists and epidemiologists more routinely work in tandem to address health problems," said symposium organizer Jory Brinkerhoff of the University of Richmond.

Scientists studying human diseases may overlook possible ecological factors.

For example, most Lyme disease cases in the eastern United States happen in the North even though the black-legged tick, which transmits the bacterium, is found throughout the Eastern states.

Human life histories and interactions with the environment, researchers say, are critically important to the success of managing a mosquito-borne virus called dengue fever.

"Disease ecologists and epidemiologists address some of the same kinds of questions, yet operate largely in isolation of one another," said Brinkerhoff.

"We're bringing them together to share their approaches and study designs, and to strengthen our ability to address public health issues."

Disease Ecology in Human-Altered Landscapes: Monday, Aug. 5, 2013, 1:30 p.m.-5 p.m., 205AB, Minneapolis Convention Center.
Organizer/Moderator: Courtney Coon, University of South Florida
Co-Organizer: James Adelman, Virginia Tech


  • Parviez Hosseini, EcoHealth Alliance
  • Matthew Ferrari, Penn State University
  • Marm Kilpatrick, University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Raina Plowright, Penn State University
  • Sonia Altizer, University of Georgia
  • Becki Lawson, Zoological Society of London

Eco-Epidemiology: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Addressing Public Health Problems: Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, 1:30 p.m.-5 p.m., 205AB Minneapolis Convention Center.
Organizer/Moderator: Jory Brinkerhoff, University of Richmond
Co-Organizer: Maria Diuk-Wasser, Yale School of Public Health


  • Maria Diuk-Wasser, Yale School of Public Health
  • Daniel Salkeld, Colorado State University
  • Mark Wilson, University of Michigan
  • James Holland Jones, Stanford University
  • Harish Padmanabha, National Center for Socio-Environmental Synthesis
  • Jean Tsao, Michigan State University


Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734,
Nadine Lymn, ESA, (202) 833-8773,

Related Websites
NSF Special Report: Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases:
NSF News Release: Controlling the Spread of Diseases Among Humans, Other Animals and the Environment:
NSF EEID Discovery Article Series:
ESA 2013 Annual Meeting:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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Scientist Marm Kilpatrick taking a blood sample from a downy woodpecker
Scientist Marm Kilpatrick taking a blood sample from a downy woodpecker.
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A nymphal blacklegged tick on leaf litter
A nymphal blacklegged tick on leaf litter in Tennessee.
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Biologist Jean Tsao readies a research tick garden
Biologist Jean Tsao readies a research "tick garden" for close-up looks at ticks.
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Colonies of elkhorn coral under water
Colonies of elkhorn coral are susceptible to infection by a human bacterial pathogen.
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Researcher study Caribbean coral reefs
Researchers study Caribbean coral reefs for clues to white pox disease.
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