EarthWords is an on-going series in which we shed some light on the complicated, often difficult-to-pronounce language of science. Think of us as your terminology tour-guides, and meet us back here every week for a new word!
The EarthWord: Zoonotic
- We share many things with our animal friends, like habitats, resources, and even genes. But contrary to what you learned in preschool, sharing is not always polite. Zoonotic diseases or infections are those that spread between animals and humans, such as Lyme disease, some strains of highly pathogenic avian flu, rabies, and plague.
- Zoonotic illnesses range from mild to severe and, in extreme circumstances, can be deadly to animals, humans, or both.
- Seven of 10 zoonotic diseases originate in wildlife.
- The word zoonotic, or zoonosis, stems from the Greek words zoion, which means animal, and nosis, which means disease.
Use/Significance in the Earth Science Community:
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anyone can become sick from zoonotic diseases, but children, seniors, and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk.
- Zoonotic diseases negatively affect already threatened or endangered wildlife species, and their impacts ripple throughout ecosystems. For example, sylvatic plague, a bacterial disease spread by fleas, has decimated prairie dog colonies throughout the western United States. Endangered black-footed ferrets rely on prairie dogs as their main food source, and are also susceptible to the disease.
- The USGS is the lead federal agency for wildlife disease research and surveillance, including numerous zoonotic diseases. Serving as an early warning system, USGS surveillance for wildlife diseases helps detect potential zoonotic threats to human health. For more information, please visit the USGS Ecosystems Mission Area website.
- The USGS National Wildlife Health Center studies national and international wildlife diseases and pathogens, including zoonotic diseases, to minimize wildlife losses and help protect animal, human, and ecosystem health. Zoonotic diseases previously and currently investigated by the center include strains of avian influenza that may be zoonotic, sylvatic plague, West Nile virus, Zika virus, and bat-associated rabies, among others.
- The USGS Eastern Ecological Research Center (formerly the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center) also studies avian flu, as well as zoonotic diseases that spread via insects, like Lyme disease.
- The USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center researches disease-carrying parasites that move between livestock, wildlife, and/or humans.
- Alaska is geographically important because it lies within the migratory routes of birds that move between East Asia and North America, making it a likely location for introductions of foreign bird diseases. The USGS Alaska Science Center studies these diseases, including zoonotic avian flu.
Hungry for some science, but you don’t have time for a full-course research plate? Then check out USGS Science Snippets, our snack-sized science series that focuses on the fun, weird, and fascinating stories of USGS science.
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