Cardinals may reduce West Nile virus spillover in Atlanta

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Aug. 9, 2016

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One more reason to love the northern cardinal: In addition to being beautiful to look at, in Atlanta these birds appear to help shield humans from West Nile virus. Photo by Stephen Wolfe.

Northern cardinals act as “super suppressors” of West Nile virus in Atlanta, slowing transmission and reducing the incidence of human cases of the mosquito-borne pathogen, suggests a new study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

“Previous research has shown that the American robin acts like a ‘super spreader’ for West Nile virus in Chicago and some other cities,” says Rebecca Levine, who led the research as a PhD student in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences. “Now our study provides convincing data that northern cardinals and some other bird species may be ‘super suppressors’ of the virus in Atlanta.”

The researchers also found that birds in Atlanta’s old-growth forests had much lower rates of West Nile virus infection compared to birds tested in the city’s secondary forests and other urban micro-habitats.

“This finding suggests that old growth forests may be an important part of an urban landscape,” Levine says, “not just because of the natural beauty of ancient trees, but because these habitats may also be a means of reducing transmission of some mosquito-borne diseases.”

Levine has since graduated from Emory and now works as an epidemiologist and entomologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Uriel Kitron, chair of Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences and an expert in mosquito-borne pathogens, is senior author of the paper.

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