Skip directly to content

Biodiversity as disease defender

NSF Award:

CAREER: Community Ecology of Disease  (University of Colorado at Boulder)

Linking Host Diversity and Amphibian Disease: Experimental and Field Studies  (University of Colorado at Boulder)

Congressional Districts:
Research Areas:

The spread of disease among humans, domestic animals and wildlife presents global economic and security risks. To lessen these risks, researchers need understand how ecological systems increase or suppress disease spread.   

Prior studies have shown that high levels of biodiversity can suppress the spread of disease, but evidence for specific mechanisms for this effect was limited. The correlation was particularly hard to decipher because many natural systems may have several diseases circulating through a variety of interacting hosts at any particular time. 

To overcome this hurdle, NSF-funded researchers focused on a single parasite, Ribeiroia ondatrae, which has a life cycle that passes through snails and amphibians, and is believed responsible for amphibian limb deformities. The team studied natural communities in 345 individual California wetlands that, in addition to hosting the disease-carrying snails, had no more than six different amphibian species. The environmental observations were corroborated with laboratory tests and experiments in small constructed wetlands. 

The researchers found that the order in which amphibian species arrive within pond ecosystems is predictable; the first species are consistently most susceptible to infection. As more resistant amphibian species arrive in the ecosystem, the chances of the parasite encountering a highly susceptible host decreases and limits further parasite reproduction.

The team's findings were published in Nature.



  • a california tiger salamander
The California Tiger Salamander helps block microbe transfer among susceptible hosts.
John Cleckler, USFWS

Recent Award Highlights

a beaver

Yellowstone ecosystem needs beavers

Beaver dams will help restore fertile wetlands in the park

Research Areas: Biology Locations: Colorado
mountain lion

Disease exchange between wild cats and house cats

Bobcats, pumas and domestic cats share ranges and disease exposure

Research Areas: Biology Locations: Colorado