Understanding disease: UNT biology professor studying possible malaria outbreak in birds as model for disease spread

Friday, December 3, 2021 - 13:47

DENTON (UNT), Texas – A possible malaria outbreak in birds in Chile could lead to a better understanding of the impact global warming has on disease transmission, according to a University of North Texas researcher.

Department of Biological Sciences assistant professor Andrew Gregory is investigating a population of birds in Chile that are exhibiting symptoms of malaria. Malaria is a mosquito-spread disease and mosquitoes are not typically found in Chile’s subantarctic climate.

There are recent indications that some of the birds may have been infected with malaria, but that hasn’t been definitively determined yet, according to Gregory. Studying how malaria behaves in the population could offer insights into how disease travels through populations, as well as how disease impacts the local ecology, population, and ecological community dynamics.

“Whether you're looking at a community of birds, a population of deer or a local human population, it's all very, very similar,” Gregory said. “Understanding how diseases can hide in certain species, be amplified by others and be transmitted by still different sets of species — and what that does to populations — has far-reaching ramifications for situations like the COVID pandemic, chronic wasting disease in deer and bovine tuberculosis.

Looking back in history, it’s similar to how malaria spread to Hawaii with the increase in humans arriving and whaling ships bringing mosquitoes, Gregory said. While coastal populations of birds were hit hard by the mosquito-spread disease, bird populations remained relatively stable higher up the mountains of Hawaii where the temperature was colder.

This offers opportunities to see not only how wildlife disease can restructure with climate change, but also how it affects the other populations, including humans, that interact with birds.

“We have a unique opportunity to study a novel landscape where birds are being exposed to a new threat brought about by climate change,” Gregory said.

Gregory will travel to the Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation area in Chile in January with a group of students who are chosen from universities across the country to study the impacts of malaria and climate change on biodiversity.

Andrés Couve Correa, the Chilean Minister of Science, Technology, Knowledge and Innovation, recently spoke at the conservation area with reporters, declaring the area a unique location that offers many research opportunities, especially around topics of science, technology and biodiversity in a subantarctic region.

According to an article from the announcement, work in the conservation area is most often done by a consortium of universities, including the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (Puc), the University of Chile, the Central University, the Research Center in Ecosystems of Patagonia (Ciep), the Catholic University of Temuco, the University of Talca, the University of Los Lagos and the University of North Texas.

“It's an international and interdisciplinary research experience for graduate students,” Gregory said. “We've pitched this idea of looking at the biocultural context of Chile in a Man and the Biosphere Reserve area, which is home to some of the most pristine places on Earth.”

Although humans have been in the area, its relative remoteness means that a lot of wildlife species have not interacted with humans. All of the students’ research will focus on drivers of biodiversity.

“Some of the students will conduct research on the social dynamic of how people interact with nature in the reserve, while other students will investigate the area’s rich biological ecological opportunities,” Gregory said. “The grant also provides graduate students the opportunity to be part of a multinational, large-scale collaborative team and gain experience doing field and lab research.”

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