Saving endangered vultures might save human lives

In the NCEAS SNAPP Ecological Levers for Health working group, we’re collecting examples of local or regional interventions that can have direct, measurable benefits for human health (via reduced infectious disease) and the environment – win-win solutions. The case studies that we’ve collected thus far are so cool that we just can’t wait to share them! So today I’m going to share a story about vulture conservation and human infectious disease. The bite-sized, Tweetstorm version of the story is available at @parasiteecology.

Let’s start with the obvious: vultures are crazy awesome birds. They have a gross/creepy reputation because they’re a bit funny looking, they eat dead stuff, and they have some odd habits, like defecating on their own legs to increase evaporative cooling. But they also have some animal superpowers: they can smell things that are kilometers away, they can fly despite being huge, and their stomach acids are so brutal that they can literally eat anthrax for breakfast.

isbotulismacarb

But even superbirds have their Kryptonite. In the past few decades, millions of vultures have died after consuming human-sourced poisons. One such poison is Diclofenac, an NSAID that is used in veterinary medicine. Because a single carcass is typically visited by many vultures, contamination with the drug in discarded livestock carcasses can have huge impacts on vulture populations. And it did. For instance, in India, populations of three vulture species (Gyps indicus, G. tenuirostris, and G. bengalensis) plummeted by 97-99% in just one decade!! Globally, the majority of vulture species are facing extinction (critically endangered, endangered, or threatened), but the vulture extinction crisis in India is especially notable.

With local and global conservation efforts and funding already stretched thinly over thousands of endangered species, why should we care about vulture conservation, specifically? Well, for starters, vultures have been spiritual and cultural icons forever. Ever seen a Western movie? Watched the Jungle Book? Gone for a walk or a drive in the wilderness? Yeah, life without vultures would be weird. It’d also smell terrible. As obligate scavengers, vultures’ unique adaptations allow them to find carcasses much sooner than many facultative scavengers (e.g., dogs, raccoons, rodents). And vultures tend to pick carrion bones clean – and might even eat the bones! – whereas other scavengers often only eat specific tissues. That means that in a world without vultures, putrefying carrion would be more common. And not just “in the wild.” Many cities around the world have rudimentary waste management, at best, and vultures are a major player in waste removal/reduction.

But in a world overrun by carrion, the stench would be the least of our problems. Carcasses repulse us because they are hotspots of disease risk – sources of exposure to anthrax, botulism, and other infectious agents. And more subtly, abundant carrion might also increase populations of animal reservoirs for disease, like rodents and feral dogs. For instance, when vulture populations drastically declined in India in the 1990s – and carrion availability hypothetically increased – the feral dog population increased by millions, despite ongoing sterilization programs. We can’t be sure that vulture declines caused the increase in feral dog populations, because many other things changed in India during that same period (e.g., urbanization). But vulture declines are one possible driver of increased feral dog populations, and during the same period, the risk of feral dog bites increased, as did the number of human deaths due to rabies (Markandya et al. 2008).

vulturestakeouttrash

Rabies kills 59,000 people per year – mostly in rural Asia and Africa, where access to treatment is limited – and almost all of these human rabies infections come from feral dog bites. Asia and Africa are also the hotspots of global vulture declines, and this spatial correlation suggests that adding an ecological intervention – in the form of vulture conservation – to ongoing dog sterilization and public health interventions might be a successful way to reduce rabies transmission. But interventions won’t be supported by the public and policy makers unless they are demonstrably cost-effective. So Markandya et al. (2008) figured out the economic cost of rabies in India and the cost of vulture conservation in India, and concluded that the benefits of reduced rabies outweighed the costs of vulture conservation. This could be a practical win-win!

But how do we conserve vultures? In addition to captive rearing programs to immediately buffer vulture populations, the most important conservation action was to switch from the lethal vet med Diclofenac to a vulture-friendly vet med, like Meloxicam. India, Nepal, and Pakistan all banned Dicofenac in 2006, and since then, vulture population declines seem to have slowed or even reversed (see below – Prakash et al. 2012)! But because the vulture populations are so small, the most recent populations estimates are admittedly rather uncertain, so these trends should be viewed cautiously.

Prakashfig.png

If Diclofenac is banned, why aren’t vulture populations growing like crazy? For starters, vultures are K-selected species, so their populations grow slowly even under the best conditions. And despite the ban, Diclofenac is still readily acquired, so some contaminated carcasses are still finding their way into the food chain. It’s also possible that the sheer number of feral dogs in India is hampering vulture recovery, if the vultures are being outcompeted by dogs for available carrion.

Since Indian vulture populations haven’t rebounded yet – they’ve only (hopefully) stopped declining – we wouldn’t actually expect that available carrion, dog populations, and the incidence of human rabies have decreased. So it’s too soon to say whether this ecological intervention successfully reduced human infectious disease, as predicted. To further complicate measuring the public health success of this intervention, rabies isn’t a notifiable disease in India, so human rabies cases and deaths often go unreported. Therefore, if the human health impacts of vulture conservation in India are ever going to be decisively evaluated, some intensive surveying of vulture populations, dog populations, and human rabies cases will be required in the near future.

In conclusion, education/policy initiatives for vulture conservation are predicted to be #Levers4Health – mutually beneficial solutions for human infectious disease and conservation. But enacting these interventions can be tricky, and measuring their long term success might be prohibitively difficult. We’ll be eagerly awaiting more news and data on vulture conservation, feral dog populations, and human infectious diseases from Asia and Africa.

Do you know of other examples of potential win-win solutions for reducing human infectious diseases and advancing conservation goals? If so, we’d love to hear about them! You can let us know in the comments, on Twitter, or by email!

If you’d like to learn more about the vulture conservation crisis and it’s impacts on human health, check out these references:

Balmford, A. 2013. Pollution, politics, and vultures. Science 339: 653-654.

Buechley, E.R, and Ç.H. Şekercioğlu. 2016. The avian scavenger crisis: Looming extinctions, trophic cascades, and loss of critical ecosystem functions. Biological Conservation 198: 220-228.

Gangosa, L., R. Agudo, J.D. Anadón, M. de la Riva, A.S. Suleyman, R. Porter, and J.A. Donázar. 2012. Reinventing mutualism between humans and wild fauna: insights from vultures as ecosystem services providers. Conservation Letters 6(3): 172-179.

Green, R.E., J.A. Donazar, J.A. Sanchez-Zapata, and A. Margalida. 2016. Potential threat to Eurasian griffon vultures in Spain from veterinary use of the drug diclofenac. Journal of Applied Ecology 53: 993-1003.

Ogada, D.L.,  et al. 2016. Another continental vulture crisis: Africa’s vultures collapsing toward extinction. Conservation Letters 9(2): 89-97.

Markandya, A., T. Taylor, A. Longo, M.N. Murty, S. Murty, and K. Dhavala K. 2008. Counting the cost of vulture decline – an appraisal of the human health and other benefits of vultures in India. Ecological Economics 67:194-204.

Prakash, V, et al. 2012. The population decline of Gyps vultures in India and Nepal has slowed since veterinary use of Diclofenac was banned.  PLoS ONE 7(11): e49118. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049118

Photo/figure credits from the Tweetstorm can be found on the figures, or at these locations:

(4, 6, 8, and 15) BirdLife South Africa has a bunch of great fact cards that are worth sharing. You can check out the rest here.

(7) Thanks, Disney, for our childhoods.

(10) Photo credit to Corrinne

(12) Figure credit to Steven Vanek

(13) Find this and other excellent illustrations here

(16) From here

(18) The LA times has a great series of condor release photos here

(19) Thanks to Ginger at NCEAS for being our photographer!

Parasites and de-extinction

[We’re still taking a break from the “how to become a successful parasite ecologist” post series. More on that in a few weeks!]

Sometime during my undergraduate education, I was required to prepare for and participate in a class debate exercise regarding whether we should bring animals like the woolly mammoth back from extinction. In the years since, I haven’t kept up with that literature at all, so I was quite surprised to read this opening line in a recent paper: “De-extinction is rapidly transitioning from scientific aspiration to inevitability.” Wow!

But that wasn’t even the most exciting part of the paper. Wood et al. (2017) went on to point out that to successfully ‘resurrect’ extinct species, we would need to ensure that the appropriate abiotic and biotic environments exist to sustain those resurrected species. You know what that means, don’t you? Parasites. If we’re going to resurrect extinct species, we need to give them parasites.

Here’s a quote from the paper. I hope it makes you ponder things… I certainly did.

“Would it be possible to genetically manufacture a parasite fauna and microbiota to suit the resurrected species, perhaps using palaeoecological data as a guide? Or would a mixture of extant parasites and microbiota, from species with a similar ecological niche, be sufficient? What implications would there be of a failure to adequately reconstruct these obligate microbiotic communities for the resurrected species and the ecosystem within which it is to be embedded?”

mammoth

Reference:

Wood, J. R., Perry, G. L. W. and Wilmshurst, J. M. 2017. Using palaeoecology to determine baseline ecological requirements and interaction networks for de-extinction candidate species. Funct Ecol, 31: 1012–1020. doi:10.1111/1365-2435.12773

 

What is a vector?

Precise definitions are important in science, because I said so (and other better reasons). In parasite ecology, the tricky definitions that students often mix up are things like parasite versus parasitoid and microparasite versus macroparasite. In fact, at least 20 visitors per week happen upon this blog because they want look up one of those terms.

But it isn’t just students and the general public who struggle with tricky definitions in parasite ecology. Within the field, we can’t even agree on what to call our discipline! (Disease ecology? Parasitology? Epidemiology?) And it has recently come to my attention that a term that I thought had bullet-proof definition is somewhat controversial among parasite ecologists.

In an awesome special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B that just came out this month, there was a thought-provoking article entitled, “What is a vector?” The idea for the article came from a working group of the British Ecological Society’s ‘Parasites & Pathogens’ Special Interest Group, where participants unexpectedly found that they did not all use the same definition of “vector.” The article contained a whole list of possible definitions that the authors found in the literature, including this subset, which I have re-numbered for my own purposes:

Definition 1A: “Any organism (vertebrate or invertebrate) that functions as a carrier of an infectious agent between organisms of a different species.”

Definition 1B: “Any organism (vertebrate or invertebrate) or inanimate object (i.e., fomite) that functions as a carrier of an infectious agent between organisms.”

Definition 2: “Any organism that can transmit infectious diseases between humans or from animals to humans.”

Definition 3A: “Hosts that transmit a pathogen while feeding non-lethally upon the internal fluids of another host.”

Definition 3B: “Blood-feeding arthropods such as mosquitoes, ticks, sandflies, tsetse flies and biting midges that transmit a pathogen while feeding non-lethally upon the internal fluids of another host.”

I couldn’t believe that parasite ecologists differed so much with their working definitions, so I put them into a poll, and then I asked you guys to tell me which definitions you use. (Thanks for your participation!) To my great surprise, your answers were all over the place! No one really used Definition 2 (the “anthropocentric” definition), but all of the other definitions received some support. As of 21 March, the most popular definition was 1A, and 1A+B were more popular than 3A+B.

Wilson et al. (2017) do a great job of discussing the pros and cons of each definition, and they also take a stab at a possible mathematical definition (the “sequential” definition), so I’d recommend giving their paper a read for a lot more coverage than you’re going to get here. I’m just going to cover two points that were surprising to me.

First surprise: I did not expect that so many people would prefer 1B over 1A, because I don’t like including fomites in the definition of a vector. My primary reason for preferring IA is that we already have a term for inanimate objects that transmit infectious agents (i.e., fomites). Wilson et al. (2017) provide a good discussion on the utility of thinking about some fomites (e.g., drug needles) in pseudo-biological terms that would normally apply to vectors. But I think that I’d still prefer to call things like needles “fomites,” even if it’s helpful to think of their parallels with living vectors.

Second surprise: I did not expect that so many people would prefer 1A+B to 3A+B. As Wilson et al. (2017) discuss, the 1A+B definitions are broad; for instance, the wording suggests that we include intermediate hosts (i.e., snails infected by trematodes) as vectors! It also suggests that any host capable of interspecific transmission could be a vector. 

In the end,Wilson et al. (2017) suggested that parasite ecologists think carefully about their definitions of the term “vector,” and then they scored a closing home run with, “all vector definitions are wrong, but some are (we hope) useful.” WOMP WOMP.

Give the paper a read, and share your thoughts in the comments!

Reference:

Wilson, A. J., E. R. Morgan, M. Booth, R. Norman, S. E. Perkins, H. C. Hauffe, N. Mideo, J. Antonovics, H. McCallum, and A. Fenton. 2017. What is a vector? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 372:20160085.

(Not) North Pole Parasites: Mistletoe

I meant to continue blogging about North Pole Parasites today, moving on to talk about Trichinella in polar bears, but this article by Tommy Leung reminded me that mistletoe is really the ultimate Christmas parasite. So instead, I wrote you guys a poem. Happy Holidays!

EDIT: Oh, and for cool footage, check out this video!

mistletoe2

Everything you thought you knew about keystone sea stars is wrong

…ok, maybe not everything. I’m just getting into the clickbait title fad. But you probably are incorrectly citing Paine (1966), so you’ll be glad you clicked!

Bob Paine, a giant in ecology, recently passed away. He left behind an incredible legacy of ideas and students, and one insanely famous paper: “Food web complexity and species diversity.” If you’re an ecologist, you know that in the experiment described in that paper, Paine removed sea stars from the rocky intertidal and then recorded what happened. In particular, when sea stars were removed, he found that mussels (a favorite delicacy of sea stars) took over more of the primary substrate, crowding out other space-holding species and thus reducing the total number of space-holding species.

According to a recent paper by Lafferty and Suchanek (2016)(PDF link), ecologists usually cite Paine (1966) when they say something like, “predators increase biodiversity by fostering co-existence among competitors.” Most papers never specify which components of biodiversity actually increase when sea stars are present (i.e., primary space-holders). But it turns out that it is important to be specific, because in the rocky intertidal, sea stars actually greatly reduce biodiversity! By eating mussels, sea stars reduce the surface area of an important 3D habitat full of epibionts and parasites and tiny free-living organisms that live among the mussel shells. So, when you cite Paine (1966), you should specify that sea stars increase primary space-holder biodiversity, but reduce total community diversity.

As a side note, my favorite quote from this paper was: “Whelks are like little wolves in slow motion.” Go read it!

Mussels

Those purple things are mussels. You get the cartoons you pay for on this blog. 😛

Reference:

Lafferty, K.D., and T.H. Suchanek. 2016. Revisiting Paine’s 1966 Sea Star Removal Experiment, the Most-Cited Empirical Article in the American Naturalist. The American Naturalist.

Parasite ecology cartoon feedback

The main goal of this blog is to communicate recent symbiont ecology science to people in the field and to students and non-scientists outside of the field. Judging by the feedback that I’ve received already, the cartoons that accompany (most of) my posts are one of the main draws for scientists visiting the blog. They’re also the most important selling point for educators using my posts in their classes and other educational material. I have a few years of cartoon experimenting under my belt, but it is still difficult to guess which cartoons will be crowd pleasers. So, if you’re a regular visitor and/or you’re an educator using my cartoons for educational purposes, I’d greatly appreciate it if you could take a moment to give me some cartoon feedback. Thank you in advance!

First, you can visit last week’s post and vote on the best parasite ecology cartoon from 2015. I really use that feedback to think about what kinds of cartoons to make in the future.

Second, you can post in the comments of shoot me an email to tell me what you like and/or what could be improved to make my cartoons more accessible to students.

One recent experiment has been embedding movie/TV references in my cartoons. The downside of this is that not everyone will get all of the references. (I fear I’m getting old….) Stay tuned next week for my best and most timely movie reference yet!

Forrest Gump

forrestgump

House, MD

Finch

Home Improvement

CaterpillarsTimandWilson

Terminator

hastalavista

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

bringoutyerdead

Fringe

FliesFromanAlternateHost

300

SpartantsvsPersiants

Best parasite ecology cartoon of 2015?

Happy New Year!

It’s the first day of the new year, which means that you get to vote on the best parasite ecology cartoon from last year! In 2013, the winner was “Social Networking in Lemurs,” a cartoon about this study that painted lice on lemurs to infer lemur contacts. In 2014, the winner was “Oldest Trick in the Book,” a romantic cartoon about a snail who was castrated by trematodes. Which 2015 cartoon was best?! I’m opening up the voting for these candidates:

Dispersal is like a box of chocolates

forrestgump

Tethered love

SnailTethers

Tastes like chicken

Trex

Crappy relationships:

possumpoo

House (finch), M.D.:

Finch

When snails feel sluggish:

Periwinkle1

The host plant is always greener on the other side:

CaterpillarsTimandWilson

Hasta la vista, Biomphalaria:

hastalavista

You don’t guano know:

PitcherThis

Bring out yer dead (prairie dogs)!:

bringoutyerdead