Landscape structure influences avian malaria ecology in the Western Cape, South Africa
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A central theme in landscape ecology is that of understanding the consequences of landscape heterogeneity for ecological processes. The effects of landscape heterogeneity on parasite communities are poorly understood, although it has been shown that anthropogenic impacts may contribute to outbreaks of both parasites and pathogens. We tested for effects of landcover type, composition, configuration, and urbanisation on avian diversity and avian malaria prevalence in 26 communities of wetland-associated passerines in the Western Cape of South Africa. We predicted that avian malaria prevalence would be influenced by the pattern of farmland and urban areas in the surrounding landscapes and the sizes of the wetlands in which birds were sampled. We quantified landscape pattern using a six-class simplification of the National Landcover data set at 35 × 35 m resolution and five extents of between 1 and 20 km from each wetland. The bird community was sampled using point counts and we collected blood samples from birds at each site. We screened these for malaria using PCR and molecular techniques. Passerine species richness and infection prevalence varied significantly between different landcover types. Host richness and parasite prevalence were highest in viticultural and cropping sites respectively and lowest in urban sites. Wetlands located in indigenous vegetation had intermediate numbers of bird species and intermediate parasite prevalence. Landscape composition and habitat type surrounding wetlands emerged as useful correlates of infection prevalence. Anthropogenic landscape modification appears to have both direct and indirect effects on avian communities and their associated parasite assemblages, with attendant consequences for avian health.