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Animal Extinctions Mean Bad Health for Humans

Extinction--of animals (NOTE: subscribers can still listen to this show), plants (and maybe even humans) is in our future (and may be starting right now), and protecting biodiversity is more than an act of environmental preservation--it can be a matter of self-preservation, because the healthy biodiversity in intact ecosystems helps ward off infectious disease. Biologist Drew Harvell says, "As buffering species disappear, rates of disease spread can accelerate. More broadly, biodiversity per se seems to protect organisms, including humans, from transmission of infectious diseases in many cases. Preserving biodiversity in these cases, and perhaps generally, may reduce the incidence of established pathogens."

In a diverse ecosystem, often only a fraction of organisms are susceptible to particular diseases or parasites, and the presence of buffering species means the spread of a malady is muted. One example is Lyme Disease, which can be transmitted to humans by ticks carried by white-footed mice. In intact communities with opossums, the ticks attack opossums, but they fail to survive on opossums, thus reducing the transmission rate of Lyme Disease. The ticks also jump onto deer and when we stopped hunting them (and killed off their predators), deer proliferated and made their way into suburbia, causing large outbreaks of Lyme disease in the human populations there.

Harvell says, "This discovery of the buffering effect is most clear on land where we know all the links in the transmission of some diseases. In the oceans, we are dealing with a vast new equation relating to disease spread, climate change and biodiversity. Disease outbreaks are being accelerated by climate warming before we even know the links in the disease transmission chain."

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