Tag Archives: disease

Can Scavengers Actually Reduce Disease Transmission?

Many organisms are vulnerable to a wide array of diseases and parasites throughout the course of their lives, but could scavengers help reduce that vulnerability? (Image Credit: The High Fin Sperm Whale, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Do scavengers prevent or promote disease transmission? The
effect of invertebrate scavenging on Ranavirus transmission (2019) Le Sage et al., Functional Ecology, https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13335

The Crux

As intimate as the host-parasite relationship is, it is important to keep in mind that it is embedded within a complex web of other interactions within the local ecological community. To add to this complexity, all of these interactions can feed back on and effect the host-parasite relationship. One ubiquitous part of all communities is the scavenger, an organism that feeds on dead and decomposing organisms. The authors of this paper wanted to investigate how scavengers affect disease transmission in local communities.

This question in interesting because it can easily go either way, depending on the community in question. Scavengers could lower disease transmission by eating infected organisms, thus removing contagious elements from the environment. However, scavengers could also increase transmission by promoting the spread of contagious elements in the community via their own waste after they consume infected tissues.

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The Root of Disease

Fields full of herbaceous plants such as these can be incredibly diverse and complicated ecosystems, and the multitudes of species that inhabit them can influence the magnitude of disease that the organisms that inhabit it may encounter (Image Credit: LudwigSebastianMicheler , CC BY-SA 4.0)

Past is prologue: host community assembly and the risk of infectious disease over time (2018) Halliday, F.W. et al., Ecology Letters, 22, https://dx.doi/10.1111/ele.13176

The Crux

Everything in ecology is based around the environment that a focal organism inhabits, including the interactions it has with other organisms and the non-living aspects of the habitat itself (temperature, water pH, etc.). That being said, it’s no surprise that disease dynamics are likely to depend on the environment that a host inhabits, and that the environment itself is a product of what came before. That is to say, the group of organisms that originally populate a given ecosystem can have an effect on how that ecosystem will look in the future (lakes with freshwater mussels will have clearer water than those without).

The scientific literature is full of experiments, observations, and hypotheses about which environmental conditions lead to fluctuations in disease dynamics. As such, it is difficult to come to a consensus with a “one-size-fits-all” rule for disease dynamics and community structure. The authors of today’s study used a long-term experiment to determine what exactly moderates disease over time.  Read more

Getting Better May Get You Eaten

Immune response increases predation risk (2012) Otti et al., Evolution 66

Fighting off an infection can use up valuable energy, and also change behaviour, which can lead to enhanced risk of predation

Fighting off an infection can use up valuable energy, and also change behaviour, which can lead to enhanced risk of predation (Image Credit: Gilles San Martin, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Crux

Parasites and diseases cause a lot of problems for their hosts, stealing resources like blood, food and energy. But fighting off parasites is also a costly process, so hosts have to walk the thin line between using just enough resources to fight off the parasite and using too many, leaving them with nothing. The amount a host invests in their immune response will depend on the specific environment that they live in. For example, in an environment where resources are plentiful, a host may decide that it is worth shaking off a parasite or disease. In areas where resources aren’t, they may choose to save energy.

Introducing predation to a situation further complicates things. Having a lot of predators around naturally means energy conservation becomes even more important. This study examines the risk of predation for an organism that is fighting off an infection.

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