"We provide a new perspective about how habitat loss can facilitate the emergence of infectious diseases in humans," said co-author of the study Sarah Zohdy, Assistant Professor in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine.
The hypothesis is called the co-evolution effect and explains the underlying mechanisms that drive the association between habitat loss and emerging infectious diseases that spread from wildlife to humans such as Ebola, West Nile virus and SARS.
"We provide a testable hypothesis that we hope other researchers will try to test with their data, as we will be doing," said co-author Tonia Schwartz. "Whether or not these studies fully support this new hypothesis, we anticipate it will provide a new perspective that other researchers in this field can use and build on, to ultimately push this field forward to understand disease spillover and prevent it."
"Through our hypothesis, we propose that as humans alter the landscape through habitat loss, forest fragments act as islands, and the wildlife hosts and disease-causing microbes that live within them undergo rapid diversification," Zohdy said. "Across a fragmented landscape we would then see an increase in diversity of disease-causing microbes, increasing the probability that any one of these microbes may spill over into human populations, leading to outbreaks."
The new hypothesis could help shed light on the origins of infectious diseases and pave the way towards tempering global outbreaks.