Wildlife diseases: from individuals to ecosystems

Daniel M. Tompkins* (Corresponding Author), Alison M. Dunn, Matthew J. Smith, Sandra Telfer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

318 Citations (Scopus)


We review our ecological understanding of wildlife infectious diseases from the individual host to the ecosystem scale, highlighting where conceptual thinking lacks verification, discussing difficulties and challenges, and offering potential future research directions. New molecular approaches hold potential to increase our understanding of parasite interactions within hosts. Also, advances in our knowledge of immune systems makes immunological parameters viable measures of parasite exposure, and useful tools for improving our understanding of causal mechanisms. Studies of transmission dynamics have revealed the importance of heterogeneity in host behaviour and physiology, and of contact processes operating at different spatial and temporal scales. An important future challenge is to determine the key transmission mechanisms maintaining the persistence of different types of diseases in the wild. Regulation of host populations is too complex to consider parasite effects in isolation from other factors. One solution is to seek a unified understanding of the conditions under which (and the ecological rules determining when) population scale impacts of parasites can occur. Good evidence now shows that both direct effects of parasites, and trait mediated indirect effects, frequently mediate the success of invasive species and their impacts on recipient communities. A wider exploration of these effects is now needed. At the ecosystem scale, research is needed to characterize the circumstances and conditions under which both fluxes in parasite biomass, and trait mediated effects, are significant in ecosystem processes, and to demonstrate that parasites do indeed increase 'ecosystem health'. There is a general need for more empirical testing of predictions and subsequent development of theory in the classic research cycle. Experimental field studies, meta-analyses, the collection and analysis of long-term data sets, and data constrained modelling, will all be key to advancing our understanding. Finally, we are only now beginning to understand the importance of cross-scale interactions associated with parasitism. Such interactions may offer key insights into bigger picture questions such as when and how different regulatory factors are important, when disease can cause species extinctions, and what characteristics are indicative of functionally resilient ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-38
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number1
Early online date24 Aug 2010
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2011


  • Apparent competition
  • Co-infection
  • Contact network
  • Ecosystem health
  • Host regulation
  • Immunodynamics
  • Parasite loss
  • Spillback
  • Spillover
  • Tradeoffs
  • Trait mediated indirect effects
  • Transmission


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