Ecology of Infectious Disease

NCEAS has been a natural nucleus for disease ecology research as ecologists, evolutionary biologists, medical researchers, and social scientists increasingly seek crossdisciplinary collaboration to understand the interplay of disease, humans, and their environments. Many of these projects present challenges in data management since they frequently consider information as varied as disease reports, species interactions, and genetic data. Our Ecoinformatics team works closely with these research groups to design efficient solutions to data management, as well as technology and tools to support the NCEAS approach of analysis and synthesis.

Human diseases
Many disease organisms that threaten humans worldwide have complex life histories that are affected by both human and non-human attributes of the ecosystems in which they occur. For example,

Rabies virus

  • Lyme disease is carried by ticks that move about on mammal hosts such as deer and mice - environmental parameters that affect these non-human hosts have implications for human exposure to Lyme disease(1)
  • Rabies is a disease that is contracted by wildlife and can be passed on to humans. NCEAS researchers have assembled and analyzed an extensive database documenting rabid raccoons, refining predictions of rabies dynamics(2,3)
  • The bacterium causing the gastrointestinal disease cholera is waterborne and associated with microscopic crustaceans - climatic and environmental factors that affect hydrodynamics and the ecology of aquatic food webs can influence the dynamics of cholera(4-6)
  • The brain parasite that causes toxoplasmosis is passed among rats, cats, and humans; in humans, infection is associated with lifelong personality changes that may influence human culture(7)
  • NCEAS ecologists have formulated and applied cutting edge approaches in analysis and synthesis of human disease scenarios in recent years, improving our understanding of human disease risk(5,8,9)

Disease and ecosystems
Ecologists have a growing awareness of the importance of pathogens and parasites in the evolution and ecology of natural systems. Researchers at NCEAS have examined the evolutionary relationships between disease organisms and their hosts, as well as more modern alterations of pathogen and parasite dynamics by humans(10). For example:

  • Introduced species have escaped many of the parasites of their native ranges(11,12);
  • Removal of predators that normally select sick individuals from prey groups may increase pathogen transmission if diseased individuals continue living within those groups(13);
  • Primate researchers have examined the role of social and feeding behavior in moderating infection by sexually transmitted diseases and parasites in non-human primates(14-16);
  • Disease is considered to be among the most significant causes of the modern coral reef decline, and warmer temperatures encourage some of the most common diseases on coral reefs(17);
  • Environmental warming and human activities, such as fishing, may have complex disease effects as warm temperatures seem to favor some pathogens and parasites, while decreasing the prevalence or severity of others(18), and human activities alter host abundance, behavior and environment(19).

Ecological impacts of climate change has also been a special area of research at NCEAS, and among NCEAS projects, a number have addressed the interactions of disease and climate change.

Databases related to pathogen and parasite ecology are freely available through the NCEAS Data Registry and Repository. For example:


  1. B. J. Goodwin et al., Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases 1, 129 (2001).
  2. J. E. Childs et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 97, 13666 (Dec 5, 2000).
  3. C. Russell et al., Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 271, 21 (2004).
  4. K. Koelle et al., Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 272, 971 (2005).
  5. V. Guernier et al., PLoS Biology 2, e141 (June 01, 2004, 2004).
  6. K. Koelle et al., American Naturalist 163, 901 (Jun, 2004).
  7. K. D. Lafferty, Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 273, 2749 (Nov 7, 2006).
  8. J. M. Drake, PLoS Medicine 3, e3 (January 01, 2006, 2006).
  9. K. F. Smith et al., Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3, 29 (Feb, 2005).
  10. S. Altizer et al., Trends in Ecology & Evolution 18, 589 (Nov, 2003).
  11. M. E. Torchin et al., Nature 421, 628 (Feb 6, 2003).
  12. C. E. Mitchell et al., Nature 421, 625 (Feb 6, 2003).
  13. C. Packer et al., Ecology Letters 6, 797 (2003).
  14. C. L. Nunn, Animal Behaviour  66, 37 (Jul, 2003).
  15. C. L. Nunn et al., American Naturalist 162, 597 (Nov, 2003).
  16. C. L. Nunn et al., Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences 270, 347 (Feb 22, 2003).
  17. K. D. Lafferty et al., Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 35, 31 (2004).
  18. C. D. Harvell et al., Science 296, 2158 (Jun 21, 2002).
  19. J. R. Ward et al., PLoS Biology 2, 542 (Apr, 2004).