Science Highlights: Ecology of Infectious Disease

In 2001, the National Research Council (NRC) identified “infectious disease and the environment” as one of four areas of environmental science research most deserving of immediate investment. Noting that a lack of interdisciplinary collaboration had limited scientists’ understanding of disease dynamics, the NRC called for the integration of disciplines to develop a comprehensive ecological and evolutionary understanding of infectious diseases. At this time, NCEAS was at the forefront of disease ecology research, funding three cutting edge projects in 1998 alone. Because interdisciplinary collaboration is a cornerstone of the NCEAS research model, NCEAS has served as a natural nucleus for ecologists, evolutionary biologists, medical researchers, and social scientists to explore the interactions between disease, humans, and their environments. Thus, NCEAS researchers have published several influential and highly cited papers in the field of disease ecology, some of which are described below.

Click to expand the accordions below and learn about some of the NCEAS research focused on the ecology of infectious disease.

Disease Epidemics in Humans and Animals

As highlighted in a 2004 NCEAS study, ecology drives the worldwide distribution of human diseases (Guernier et al. 2004). Many disease organisms that threaten humans have complex life histories that are affected by both human and non-human attributes of the ecosystems in which they occur. NCEAS researchers have used ecological theory to understand the spatial and temporal patterns of disease transmission, and Smith and colleagues (2005) illustrated how this information can enhance and inform infectious disease control and public health policy.


Rabies is a viral disease that is contracted by mammals like bats, dogs, and raccoons and can be transmitted to humans through direct interaction. Smith et al. (2002) analyzed an extensive database documenting rabid raccoons to see how human demography and key habitat features influence the spatial dynamics of raccoon rabies epidemics. They found that large rivers act as semipermeable barriers to transmission, leading to a 7-fold reduction in local rates of disease spread, and that human population density had very little effect on the local spread of rabies.


When investigating epidemics, scientists often focus on the individual cases that are severe or fatal. However, an NCEAS study by King et. al. 2008 published in Nature suggests that mild or asymptomatic cases infecting large numbers of people are the key to understanding outbreak cycles of cholera —a mild to severe bacterial infection of the small intestine. This has important implications for the interpretation of epidemiological records, which often exclude the mild or asymptotic cases of infection.


The deadliest form of malaria in humans is also very sensitive to climate. Previous scientific studies estimated the optimal temperature for malaria transmission from mosquitos to humans at 31°C, but an NCEAS study found transmission to peak at much lower temperatures. Mordecai and colleagues (2013) developed a new mathematical model that accounts for the fact that both mosquitoes and parasites suffer in high temperatures. Their results predict malaria transmission to peak at 25°C and dramatically decrease above 28°C. Unlike previous models, the new model fits observations of malaria transmission in Africa very well, and will aid in understanding the effects of temperature on the spread of malaria and other diseases.


Grenfell et al. (2001) analyzed an exhaustive dataset of measles epidemics in England and Whales, and revealed recurring wave-like patterns of disease transmission throughout the region. They found that infections would begin in large core cities and then spread to smaller satellite towns. This paper was fundamental in quantifying the way that human settlement structures impact the spread of infection.

Ecosystems and Infectious Disease

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 among disease organisms, their hosts, and their environments to better understand the role of diseases in ecosystem processes. Both terrestrial and marine NCEAS studies have investigated the interplay of disease dynamics with invasive species, climate change, environmental stress, animal social structures, predator relationships, migration patterns, habitat fragmentation, and biodiversity. Below are just a few of the most highly cited NCEAS disease ecology publications.


A 2003 NCEAS study examined the relationship between disease risk and biodiversity, and its implications for conservation. Altizer et al. (2003) concluded that host genetic diversity plays an important role in buffering populations against widespread epidemics. Pathogens can also be a driving force behind maintaining biodiversity, so preserving interacting networks of coevolving hosts and pathogens is important to enable hosts to respond to future disease threats. Therefore, conservation programs should seek to maintain natural host-pathogen interactions as an important evolutionary process.


Many pathogens are highly sensitive to climate, and several NCEAS projects have examined the impact of seasonal forcing and climate change on infectious disease dynamics. A comprehensive study conducted at NCEAS was the first to analyze disease epidemics across entire ecosystems and investigate the impacts of climate change on disease risk. Harvell et al. (2002) concluded that climate change is triggering disease epidemics around the world, as warmer summers and milder winters favor the growth and spread of pathogens. This suggests that disease risk will increase with temperature for a wide range of hosts, including corals, oysters, plants, birds, and humans.


Success of introduced species is often attributed to escape from the pathogens of their native ranges. However, prior to two NCEAS studies published in Nature, there was a lack of clear, quantitative evidence to support this hypothesis. Mitchell et al. (2003) studied infection rates of invasive plants in their introduced and native ranges, finding that exotic plants were infected by 77% fewer fungus and virus pathogen species than their native counterparts. In addition, exotic plant species that are more completely released from their natural pathogens are more likely to be reported as harmful invaders of agricultural and natural ecosystems.

The same is true for animals. Torchin and colleagues (2003) compared the parasites of exotic animals in their introduced and native ranges using 26 host species of mollusks, crustaceans, fishes, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. They found that the number of parasites found in exotic populations is half that found in native populations.


Many factors, such as climate warming, pollution, harvesting, and introduced species can contribute to disease outbreaks in marine life. However, simultaneous increases in each of these makes it difficult to attribute recent changes in disease occurrence to any one factor. Lafferty and colleagues (2004) synthesized studies of disease outbreaks in the ocean, and concluded that environmental degradation and climate change are increasing diseases in several marine taxa, while reducing disease incidence in others. For example, an increase in disease of Caribbean coral is postulated to be a result of climate change and introduction of terrestrial pathogens. In contrast, fishing and pollution may have reduced diseases in fishes. This study highlights the complexity of marine disease dynamics and stresses the importance of long-term studies in tracking changes in disease over time.

Available Data in the KNB Repository

In support of open science, NCEAS encourages data publication in online repositories. Below are a few examples of freely available NCEAS datasets pertinent to infectious disease research: