Exploring global patterns of zoonotic dark diversity

Ms Sonia Tiedt1

1Imperial College, London, UK

Over the last century, we have witnessed a dramatic rise in the emergence of zoonotic infectious diseases. Such events, especially when unexpected, can have devastating ramification for human and animal health, as well as economic and political stability. Geographic range shifts in particular have been responsible for some of the most notable outbreaks of recent years (e.g. Ebola in West Africa, Zika in the Americas) and have frequently been linked to environmental and climatic changes. By incorporating these factors into spatial models (e.g. environmental niche models), scientists have been able to develop highly valuable, predictive tools for several high-profile diseases. However, as the vast majority of zoonoses still remain enormously understudied and consequently poorly resolved in their transmission and distribution, these approaches have thus far not been able to provide us with a comprehensive picture of how susceptibility to geographic expansion varies across the world.

In this study, we tackle this issue by utilizing a global co-occurrence dataset on nearly 300 zoonotic pathogens to estimate the dark diversity (the absent portion of the species pool) and community completeness of 225 countries. Using a Generalized Additive Modelling (GAM) approach we then go onto analyse how various factors contribute. Our results provide the first global snapshot of how much of their zoonotic potential countries have realized. We also find that higher zoonotic community completeness strongly corresponds to increasing tropical climatic conditions and discuss what important implications this may have for a world where such zones are rapidly expanding beyond their traditional boundaries.


I’m an ecologist with interests that fall at the interface of environmental, animal and human health. In my doctoral research, I explore the patterns and processes governing the distribution of zoonotic infectious diseases globally.  Despite their serious threat to global health and biodiversity, these remain surprisingly poorly understood. I am particularly interested in the origins of such pathogens, the mechanisms driving their emergence in novel locations, and the effect global change will have on these patterns. I tackle these questions by adapting both old-school and novel biogeographic methods from ecology. My PhD is part of the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet programme at Imperial College, where I split my time between the School of Public Health, the Grantham Institute for Climate Change & the Environment and the Natural History Museum.

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