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Forest fragmentation may increase Lyme disease risk

Arlington, Va. Patchy woodscommon in cities and suburbia, and even in rural areasmay have more Lyme disease-carrying ticks, which could increase risk of the disease in these forest remnants, scientists have found. While forest fragments generally have fewer species than continuous habitat does, some species actually fare better in small patches, according to biologist Felicia Keesing of Bard College in Annandale, NY, and her colleagues. Lyme disease incidence is rising in the United States, and is in fact far more common than West Nile fever and other insect-borne diseases. Forest fragmentation could explain the increase.

This research is important because it gives us a new way of looking at the transmission of diseases, and shows us that human health is affected by the local ecology, and by landuse practices, said Michael Bowers, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)s division of environmental biology, which funded the research.

White-footed mice, for example, are more abundant in forest fragments in some parts of the country, likely because fewer predators and competitors remain there. These mice are particularly abundant in patches smaller than about five acres, which could spell trouble for people living nearby: the mice are the main carriers of Lyme disease-causing bacteria. In eastern and central United States, Lyme disease is contracted via blacklegged ticks that feed on infected mice, and then transmit the bacteria when the ticks bite people. As a result, said Keesing, Lyme disease is concentrated in areas where people live near forests with blacklegged ticks.

To find out whether forest patchiness could increase the risk of Lyme disease, Keesing and colleagues Brian Allan of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, and Richard Ostfeld of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY, studied blacklegged ticks in 14 forest patches made up mostly of maple trees, and ranging from 1.7 to about 18 acres, in
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Contact: Cheryl Dybas
cdybas@nsf.gov
703-292-8070
National Science Foundation
27-Mar-2003


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