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The spread of pathogens in social networks: a field study

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Disease transmission in bird populations

A research project has investigated how social networks in birds affect the spread of bacterial pathogens in these populations.

Climate Change and Environment icon Climate Change and Environment

Disease transmission modelling is a useful tool to understand the risks and consequences of infection in animal populations. However, models generally assume that all individuals have an equal chance of encountering the disease, which is unrealistic. The EU-funded project 'The spread of pathogens in social networks: A field study' (PATHOGEN NETWORKS) aimed to better understand how social interactions affect disease transmission in wild bird populations. The project focused on pathogenic bacteria and malarial parasites (Plasmodium spp.) in great tits (Parus major) and blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus). Researchers collected mouth, wing and foot samples from more than 600 birds in several populations, and fitted them with electronic tags to monitor social interactions. Bacterial communities were genotyped and birds were kept captive in order to track social interactions. Bacterial communities were mostly very similar, although oral bacteria showed high diversity between different populations. For the malaria parasites, the research showed that infection usually occurs in close spatial proximity, despite these parasites being vector-borne.Birds also showed different feeding behaviours depending on which Plasmodium species. they were infected with. Early statistical analysis suggested a link between bird presence at common feeding points and probability of Plasmodium circumflexum infection. PATHOGEN NETWORKS has addressed the lack of data on disease transmission in social bird networks. This will allow future exploration of the impact of disease on population structure and survival.


Disease transmission, social network, birds, pathogenic bacteria, malarial parasite, feeding, population structure

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