According to several scientists, the field of diseases in northern animals is ripe for more research.
According to a researcher who studies diseases passed from insects to animals, a warmer environment could make some Arctic creatures more vulnerable to parasites and disease-causing infections.
While there are still many questions than answers on the subject, changing climates could have a significant impact on disease transmission in Arctic wildlife, according to Kayla Buhler, a veterinary researcher at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. This is partly due to the fact that many disease-causing pathogens are spread by insects, which thrive in warmer climates.
“Up north, we’re seeing rises in temperature as well as variations in precipitation,” Buhler added. “Those two factors are critical for insects.”
Buhler has studied polar bears in the western Hudson Bay region and studies Arctic foxes. She conducts much of her current research in and around the Nunavut settlements of Cambridge Bay and Gjoa Haven, where she collaborates with local residents to study wildlife health and disease.
“With some mosquito viruses, the warmer the temperatures rise, the easier a mosquito can transfer those infections,” she explained. “Thus, when it comes to insect-borne diseases, the temperature is a critical element.”
Transmission in many ways
Buhler and a group of researchers published a report earlier this year on diseases, climate change, and the western Hudson Bay polar bear population. The researchers looked at data from the 1980s and 1990s and discovered a link between bear pathogen prevalence and warmer summers.
Warmer summers, according to Buhler, mean bears spend less time hunting on the sea ice and more time on land, where they are more susceptible to disease-causing germs.
“Of course, they’ll be exposed to more insect bites if they spend more time on land,” she explained. “So that’s the first way it may be passed on.”
She added that disease could potentially be spread through contact with contaminated water on land or by other bacteria-transmitting species such as mice.
Climate warming and the melting Arctic sea ice, according to Buhler, would “certainly affect the number of infections that bears are exposed to” by forcing them onto land more frequently.
Climate change will alter northern vegetation, and hence the health and quantity of migratory bird populations, she said, adding that migrating birds can serve as a “carrier” for insects like fleas.
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