NSF-BSF Supported Study Aims to Draw Connections Between Migrating Birds and Epidemics

Israel has always been a prime destination for tourists from all over the world. But there’s a time, right before winter, when Israel plays host to enormous numbers of tourists who don’t need airplane wings to land.

Every year, Israel is a stopping ground for migrating birds, like these pelicans. By studying them, scientists may learn more about epidemics – and possibly how to stop them.

They are the birds who traverse the Palearctic-African flyway, migrating from breeding grounds in Europe and Asia, and heading toward the warmer temperatures of Africa. One of the greatest bird migrations in nature, they number in the several hundred millions. Many of these birds funnel through Israel, where they may stop and temporarily reside for anywhere from a few hours to several weeks or months.

The ones who stay are of special interest to Ran Nathan, the Adelina and Massimo Della Pergola Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and to Wayne M. Getz, the A. Starker Leopold Professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of California at Berkeley. In 2008, Getz and Nathan were awarded a BSF grant to study the foraging nature of vultures. They now share an NSF-BSF partnership grant to explore parasites and pathogens that birds carry with them when they migrate. Their discoveries

Prof. Wayne M. Getz, of the University of California at Berkley, studies animal feces for parasites, with the help of a student.

could help scientists learn more about how serious infectious diseases spread.

“To collect these data requires an investment of hundreds of thousands of US dollars, and that can only be undertaken with the kind of funding support provided by the NSF and BSF,” Getz said. “We are extremely grateful for this.”

As part of their study, Nathan and Getz are focusing on the movement and the health of birds. They are currently studying barn swallows, steppe buzzards, common cranes, mallard ducks, and barn owls.

The goal, Nathan said, is to build statistically supported relationships between movement behavior, the health of the birds, and transmission of any diseases they may have.

Over the past two decades, there has been a dramatic resurgence of diseases such as avian flu, which poses a serious threat to humans, and Newcastle disease, a highly infectious and serious disease affecting poultry.

“The study will provide baseline data on host susceptibility and infection rates,” Nathan said. “It will also enhance our understanding of disease ecology processes in multispecies-multi-pathogen communities, particularly in the context of how diseases depend on regions where birds breed or overwinter, when and for how long they spend time in the Israel passage, and how an epidemic spreads across bird species.”

Prof. Ran Nathan
Prof. Wayne M. Getz

Experience gained by the team during the execution of the research can be used to inform governments on how to improve current disease surveillance programs, or to design new ones.

“In a world that is undergoing dramatic change with regard to the structure of the earth’s ecosystems, and much higher densities of humans and their domestic animals, the potential for pandemic disease outbreaks of unprecedented size is now more likely than ever,” Getz said. “We would like to get ahead of this threat by understanding better how pathogens move though vast distances, and how we might curb, or at least anticipate, this movement.”