, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 287–295 | Cite as

Local Scale Effects of Disease on Biodiversity

  • Katherine F. Smith
  • Michael D. Behrens
  • Dov F. Sax


To date, ecologists and conservation biologists have focused much of their attention on the population and ecosystem effects of disease at regional scales and the role that diseases play in global species extinction. Far less research has been dedicated to identifying the effects that diseases can have on local scale species assemblages. We examined the role of infectious disease in structuring local biodiversity. Our intention was to illustrate how variable outcomes can occur by focusing on three case studies: the influence of chestnut blight on forest communities dominated by chestnut trees, the influence of red-spot disease on urchin barrens and kelp forests, and the influence of sylvatic plague on grassland communities inhabited by prairie dogs. Our findings reveal that at local scales infectious disease seems to play an important, though unpredictable, role in structuring species diversity. Through our case studies, we have shown that diseases can cause drastic population declines or local extirpations in keystone species, ecosystem engineers, and otherwise abundant species. These changes in local diversity may be very important, particularly when considered alongside potentially corresponding changes in community structure and function, and we believe that future efforts to understand the importance of disease to species diversity should have an increased focus on these local scales.

Key words

disease biodiversity population community local scale 


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Copyright information

© International Association for Ecology and Health 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katherine F. Smith
    • 1
    • 2
  • Michael D. Behrens
    • 3
  • Dov F. Sax
    • 1
  1. 1.Brown University, Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyProvidenceUSA
  2. 2.Wildlife TrustNew YorkUSA
  3. 3.Biology DepartmentPacific Lutheran UniversityTacomaUSA

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