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The elusive baseline of marine disease: Are diseases in ocean ecosystems increasing?

April 1, 2004

Disease outbreaks alter the structure and function of marine ecosystems, directly affecting vertebrates (mammals, turtles, fish), invertebrates (corals, crustaceans, echinoderms), and plants (seagrasses). Previous studies suggest a recent increase in marine disease. However, lack of baseline data in most communities prevents a direct test of this hypothesis. We developed a proxy to evaluate a prediction of the increasing disease hypothesis: the proportion of scientific publications reporting disease increased in recent decades. This represents, to our knowledge, the first quantitative use of normalized trends in the literature to investigate an ecological hypothesis. We searched a literature database for reports of parasites and disease (hereafter “disease”) in nine marine taxonomic groups from 1970 to 2001. Reports, normalized for research effort, increased in turtles, corals, mammals, urchins, and molluscs. No significant trends were detected for seagrasses, decapods, or sharks/rays (though disease occurred in these groups). Counter to the prediction, disease reports decreased in fishes. Formulating effective resource management policy requires understanding the basis and timing of marine disease events. Why disease outbreaks increased in some groups but not in others should be a priority for future investigation. The increase in several groups lends urgency to understanding disease dynamics, particularly since few viable options currently exist to mitigate disease in the oceans.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2004
Title The elusive baseline of marine disease: Are diseases in ocean ecosystems increasing?
DOI 10.1371/journal.pbio.0020120
Authors Jessica R. Ward, Kevin D. Lafferty
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title PLoS Biology
Series Number
Index ID 70176650
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center