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Ecology of Infectious Diseases

A large component of our research program focuses on the ecology of malaria vectors in the malaria endemic regions of Central and South America. Over the last several years this research entitled “Ecological Determinants of Malaria in Belize” has been funded under the joint NIH/NSF EID program and ended this year.

The overall research objectives were to increase our understanding of the effects of human impacts on malaria vectors, to provide mechanistic explanations of changes in vector species, to develop tools for predicting consequences of human-induced environmental changes, and to suggest management options. Field and experimental studies were conducted on both habitat and landscape scales encompassing diverse larval habitats as well as three different malaria vector species. In this complex system, presence and abundance of mosquito larvae in aquatic habitats reflect the oviposition preference of females as well as the survival capability of larvae. These are regulated by a variety of ecosystem processes operating and interacting at several organizational levels and spatial/temporal scales. Presence of water, food sources, and protection are the key variables. Aquatic plants (both micro- and macrophytes) provide protection from predators and, together with nearby trees and shrubs, produce detritus that supports the bacterial community, which, in turn, serves as food for larvae. A change in any component in this complex structure may have a substantial impact on the mosquito population and can even lead to a replacement of one species with another. Since not all mosquito species are equally efficient in transmission of malaria, replacement of a less efficient vector with a more efficient one would have serious negative consequences for human populations in the afflicted areas.