- With continual and worldwide human population growth, our impact on the natural environment expands and intensifies every day. We consume natural resources, burn fossil fuels, and release toxic compounds into the air, water, and earth. We build roads that fragment the landscape, construct new settlements, and develop agricultural lands in previously undisturbed areas. And, we introduce non-native species, which compete with and/or prey on native ones. Our actions change the composition of ecosystems by effacing natural environments and decimating plant and animal populations. We have reached a time of unprecedented anthropogenic environmental change. And, while we recognize, and work feverishly to mitigate, countless consequences of our actions, we still lack a profound understanding of just as many of the corollaries of the environmental changes we provoke.
One thing we do know is that human-induced changes in environmental conditions can affect health – from individual organisms, to plant and animal populations, all the way to the level of the ecosystem. Yet, the mechanisms underlying such adverse health outcomes are only partially understood. For instance, we know that alterations in the structure of plant and animal communities, the distribution and demographics of populations, and the abundance of individuals can influence the emergence or re-emergence of infectious diseases. Which species are present in a community, where, when, and in what numbers can all determine the dynamics of pathogens, lead to disease outbreaks, and provide opportunities for spillover into new species. However, given the many environmental-, population-, and organism-level
factors involved, and the complexity by which these variables interact, detecting and predicting the ultimate consequences for the health of animal, including human, populations remains difficult.
Wild animals play important roles in numerous infectious disease cycles, many of which are shared with humans. Considering this and the well-documented effects that human activity can have on wildlife populations, studying the impacts of anthropogenic environmental change on health in wildlife is highly relevant. To understand how human-induced environmental changes affect wildlife health and to make predictions about potential regional or even global consequences for the dynamics of infectious diseases, however, we first need to understand patterns at a local scale.
Here, I describe variation in immune function in captive and wild rodent species native to managed forests in northwestern Oregon, and examine how intensive forest management practices affect these and other physiological processes, and the prevalence of infectious diseases, in a large-scale field experiment. In Chapter 2 of this dissertation, I present baseline data on simple immune parameters in an iconic inhabitant of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, the red tree vole (Arborimus longicaudus). I show that both body condition and age are important for immune defenses in this species. Translating these findings to wild populations leads me to predict that degradation of habitat may affect red tree voles not only at the population scale, as is currently the case, but that less obvious consequences for the health of individuals surviving in disturbed or suboptimal habitat are also possible. It is important, therefore, that efforts to conserve this species consider adverse effects of present forest management practices on red tree vole health, as potentially increased disease susceptibility could have detrimental outcomes for this species.
In Chapters 3 and 4, I took advantage of a rare and large-scale experiment to test my predictions regarding the negative consequences of habitat degradation for individual animals in more ubiquitous rodent species known for their resilience to environmental disturbance. I investigated the effects of intensive forest management on stress, health, and immunity (Chapter 3), and on the prevalence of infectious
diseases transmissible to humans (Chapter 4) in deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus), Townsend chipmunks (Tamias townsendii), and creeping voles (Microtus oregoni) inhabiting managed forest plots in northwestern Oregon. The experimental design employed allowed me to test the effect of regionally representative forest management practices on health and disease outcomes with important implications for public health.
In Chapter 3, I present results which suggest that intensive forest management can have complex, but highly context-dependent effects on the health of wild deer mice. Intensive forest management can shape animals’ condition and reproductive activity, increase levels of stress hormone, and stimulate some but depress other immune responses. However, deer mice are only able to respond to the extreme stressor of this disturbance when underlying environmental conditions are favorable. When inhabiting inherently harsh habitat, mice appear unable to cope with additional disturbance imposed by intensive forest management, and only the fittest mice survive.
Finally, in Chapter 4, I identify moderate prevalence of two important and potentially fatal human infections in rodents inhabiting managed forests in northwestern Oregon. In deer mouse populations, Sin Nombre virus was clustered spatially, and prevalence varied between years. But, in the focus of highest infection, the proportion of infected mice, albeit low, appeared to increase with intensity of forest management. For Leptospirosis, I found a similar pattern in creeping voles, but did not observe an association between infection prevalence and forest management in deer mice or chipmunks. I conclude that forest management may drive infectious disease patterns, but that the direction and magnitude of such effects depends on the host-pathogen system.
Taken together, my findings indicate that wild animal health can suffer from declines in habitat quality associated with forest management. For a near-threatened species such as the red tree vole, decreases in the availability of food and nesting habitat have the potential to change susceptibility to infection, which could facilitate disease invasion and further threaten populations. For wild animals that serve as
reservoirs for human infections, especially abundant and apparently resilient species, impaired health can drive the dynamics of pathogens and increase the risk of transmission to humans and other animals. Although many more questions remain, my work contributes to our understanding of the effects of anthropogenic environmental change for wildlife and human health.