The role of infectious diseases in biological conservation


Katherine F. Smith, Brown University, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Providence, RI 02912, USA.


Recent increases in the magnitude and rate of environmental change, including habitat loss, climate change and overexploitation, have been directly linked to the global loss of biodiversity. Wildlife extinction rates are estimated to be 100–1000 times greater than the historical norm, and up to 50% of higher taxonomic groups are critically endangered. While many types of environmental changes threaten the survival of species all over the planet, infectious disease has rarely been cited as the primary cause of global species extinctions. There is substantial evidence, however, that diseases can greatly impact local species populations by causing temporary or permanent declines in abundance. More importantly, pathogens can interact with other driving factors, such as habitat loss, climate change, overexploitation, invasive species and environmental pollution to contribute to local and global extinctions. Regrettably, our current lack of knowledge about the diversity and abundance of pathogens in natural systems has made it difficult to establish the relative importance of disease as a significant driver of species extinction, and the context when this is most likely to occur. Here, we review the role of infectious diseases in biological conservation. We summarize existing knowledge of disease-induced extinction at global and local scales and review the ecological and evolutionary forces that may facilitate disease-mediated extinction risk. We suggest that while disease alone may currently threaten few species, pathogens may be a significant threat to already-endangered species, especially when disease interacts with other drivers. We identify control strategies that may help reduce the negative effects of disease on wildlife and discuss the most critical challenges and future directions for the study of infectious diseases in the conservation sciences.