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60-Second Science

Bad Biodiversity Ups West Nile Odds

Low bird biodiversity areas tend to harbor those species most likely to carry and transmit West Nile virus. Adam Hinterthuer reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

If you're worried about news reports of West Nile virus, you might want to go take a census of the birds in your backyard. Because certain species of birds actually help the virus thrive. And they're not exactly exotic jungle fowl. In fact, they’re our more familiar feathered friends.

Work on Lyme disease has shown how fragmented forests common around cities and towns are home to lots of white-footed mice, which carry that disease. Inspired by this look into the ecology of disease, researchers at Washington University turned their attention to West Nile virus. They analyzed mosquitoes around the St. Louis area and found that rural plots with robust populations of numerous bird species harbored fewer infected mosquitoes than more "citified" settings.

The typical urban or suburban backyard usually only holds a handful of bird species, like crows, grackles, house finches and robins. And those birds are rich reservoirs for West Nile virus. Which ups the odds that a mosquito stalking a suburbanite may have recently fed on a bird carrying the virus. It's another example of how human activities alter the environment in unexpected ways that can often come back to bite us.

—Adam Hinterthuer 

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