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IS FOREST FRAGMENTATION DRIVING VIRUS EMERGENCE?

June 02, 2014

IS FOREST FRAGMENTATION DRIVING VIRUS EMERGENCE?

Marco Marklewitz sometimes starts experiments in his gumboots. When his colleagues’ socks are ripe for a washing, his instead are put in a mosquito trap and hoisted into the tropical forest canopy

Marco Marklewitz sometimes starts experiments in his gumboots. When his colleagues’ socks are ripe for a washing, his instead are put in a mosquito trap and hoisted into the tropical forest canopy. In a quest to catch as many of Panama’s 280-plus mosquito species as possible, the virology grad student from the University of Bonn in Germany needs to be creative.

“You see a significant difference in species diversity between the worn socks and the artificial attractants,” said Marklewitz after checking traps on a tiny island in the Panama Canal.

Marklewitz’s research is part of a multidisciplinary disease ecology project funded by the German Research Foundation. Alongside colleagues who work with rodents and bats, Marklewitz studies how habitat fragmentation influences the prevalence and diversity of viral infections.

Fragments are thought to have lower diversity but greater numbers of common species, including mosquitos. This leads to the presence of a higher number of viruses associated with these species. “Viruses mutate fast – especially when they occur in high numbers. We hypothesize that the likelihood of mutations that may cause a species jump is tremendously higher in fragments than in an intact ecosystem,” he said.

Research sites include two types of fragmentation - islands and forests surrounded by pasture - as well as contiguous secondary and remote, old-growth forests.

“Remote forests can help us understand virus evolution if we find ancestors of a virus in those pristine habitats,” said Marklewitz, who plans to catch some 15,000 mosquitos.

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