More Plagues Likely in Our Anthropocene Future, Study Finds

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One of the effects of the Anthropocene, with its expansion of human population and attendant changes in human land use and agricultural and food production practices, is the extinction of other species. Humans are now responsible for the sixth great extinction event to take place over the last 500 million years.

But it turns out that that rise in extinctions of other species could usher in a new age of pestilence that will hurt humans too. That is because biodiversity itself protects ecosystems against infectious diseases, a new compilation of several dozen studies just published at Nature has found.

The link between extinctions and disease holds true across various ecosystems, pathogens and hosts. In general, loss of species from an environment could have dangerous consequences for the spread and incidence of infections, including those that affect humans, according to the studies reviewed by Felicia Keesing, a biologist at Bard College in Annandale, New York, and her colleagues.

Almost half of the new diseases were connected with changes in human land use and agricultural and food production practices which increase contact between people and wildlife.

The review analyzed studies of 12 diseases, including hantaviruses, West Nile fever and Lyme disease, in ecosystems around the world.

In every study, the diseases became more prevalent as biodiversity was lost. For example, three studies showed that a decreased diversity of small mammals in an area causes the prevalence of hantaviruses — which induce fatal lung infections in humans — in host animals to rise, thereby increasing the risk to humans.

“The clear message is that we degrade ecosystems at our own peril.”

One of the three studies, based in Oregon, found that the prevalence of the Sin Nombre hantavirus in deer mouse (Peromyscus) populations increased from 2% to 14% as the diversity of mammal species declined in the area.

A study in Utah found similar results. In the third study, researchers experimentally reduced the diversity of small mammals on several study plots in Panama. The number of animals that were hosts to the virus increased from around five per plot to more than six.

During the the Middle Ages, a quarter of all Europeans were killed by the Black Death. Land use changes are now thought to have been responsible for the plague. In the Middle Ages, clear cutting forests became such a problem, that taking wood from the forest could earn you a death penalty.

Susan Kraemer@Twitter

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