As avian malaria and other parasites continue to spread northward into new habitats, wildlife health experts are sounding the alarm of potential threats to global health up and down the food chain, according one Western researcher.
“Parasites are everywhere; they make up more than half of the species on Earth; they occur on every single continent and are in every one of the world’s oceans. More importantly, they can harm the health and survival of their hosts,” said Biology professor Beth MacDougall-Shackleton, whose research at Western’s Advanced Facility of Avian Research focuses on parasites and their effect on wildlife populations, especially song birds.
MacDougall-Shackleton is one of more than 140 Western research projects sharing in more than $20 million in funding through the through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) 2017 competition for the Discovery Grants program, scholarships and fellowships. Kate Young, MP-London West and Parliamentary Secretary for Science, and Peter Fragiskatos, MP-London North Centre, shared the news at Western last week as part of a larger $515-million funding announcement.
“Western has always been home to a vibrant community of researchers,” Fragiskatos said. “The funding support for fundamental research will help recipients push the boundaries of knowledge.”
Of the $515 million in funding, $376 million will go to support the Discovery Grants Program to foster research from biology and chemistry to advanced materials engineering and astrophysics. Close to $86 million in Scholarships and Fellowships will support a new generation of scientists and engineers at the early stages of their research careers.
“While parasites have always been among us, warming global temperatures are causing many parasites to change and expand their geographic ranges,” said MacDougall-Shackleton, who received $120,000 over three years from the Discovery Accelerator Supplements Program to support her work. “They are moving northward where they are encountering new species of wildlife, and these meetings can be deadly.”
Avian malaria, for example, is no longer just a tropical disease, having been transmitted as far north as Nunavut. And the fact flight makes birds so mobile, routinely traveling thousands of kilometres between their wintering and breeding grounds, this, in turn, increases the risk that new evasive parasites will begin to spread to Canada’s most vulnerable population of birds.
Along with her students, MacDougall-Shackleton is exploring why some birds are more susceptible than others to the effects of malaria parasites, and how birds, and presumably other animals, are far more vulnerable to new rather than familiar parasites.
With the latest NSERC funding, she is able to take her research out of the lab and into the wild. Using trackers, together with an array of thousands of radio towers throughout Canada and the United States, she is able to follow migratory birds in real time.
“For the first time, we can rigorously address a parasitic infection on the timing and success of migration, key factors in predicting the spread of the disease,” MacDougall-Shackleton said. “Ultimately, this research can help us predict, and even prevent, new outbreaks of malaria and other infectious wildlife diseases.”
MacDougall-Shackleton’s research is also examining the role of smell in mate choice. While you mostly think of birds as communicating through song or visual ornaments, and not by smell, research is overturning this longstanding dogma. Recently found chemical signals may advertise genetic compatibility and disease resistance in birds, she added.
“This sort of research could revolutionize our understanding of how birds identify healthy mates and how they use this knowledge to produce offspring that are resistant to disease,” said MacDougall-Shackleton. “The well-being of Canada’s bird population is a harbinger of the health of the environment and, ultimately, of our collective future.”
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