A growing body of evidence indicates that climate change alone, or acting synergistically with current anthropogenic threats, is affecting the health of wild populations of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. Measurable by-products of climate change include elevated atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, higher average global temperatures; variations in global precipitation patterns, rising and warming oceans, altered hydrographs of rivers, and increased mid-continental drying during summer. These consequences affect the terrestrial environment through shifts in phenology, vegetation cover, and fire regimes. Warmer ocean temperatures, increased acidification, rise in sea levels, and reduction in sea ice cover are also leading to widespread ecological changes in marine systems. Wildlife populations face a variety of climate-related pressures, such as changes in animal distribution or density, limitation of food resources, and alteration to critical habitats.
The increased potential for emergence and resurgence of diseases that are responsive to environmental conditions also has implications for wildlife populations. Shifts in temperature or other climatic factors may directly affect the incidence of disease in wildlife by altering host-pathogen interactions, promoting vector populations or allowing new ranges for vectors, or reducing development times for parasites. A number of examples from both field and laboratory studies have demonstrated a clear link between warming environments and disease spread. Many climate-related environmental changes also influence wildlife health indirectly. For example, increasing temperatures, in combination with shifts in rainfall and humidity, may aggravate current trends for water resource limitation and habitat degradation or destruction and lead to increased crowding of animal populations, thereby promoting transmission opportunities of pathogens within populations or across species.
Although it may be difficult to disentangle the influences of other anthropogenic changes from the direct effects of warming, some ecosystems provide especially useful models for studying climate-related disease spread in wildlife. For example, the effects of climate change on parasite dynamics may be easily observed in the Arctic, where environmental changes are occurring rapidly, anthropogenic influences are relatively limited, and biodiversity is generally low. Marine ecosystems are also undergoing rapid rates of change and may be vulnerable to a variety of natural and anthropogenic perturbations. Although many factors affect the health of organisms in ocean environments, temperature has been clearly linked to an increase in disease prevalence among sessile organisms such as corals.
In this chapter, we discuss observed and predicted changes to wildlife health resulting from climate change. Our review will not include all aspects of wildlife health, but will instead focus on established or suspected links between climate drivers and disease spread and discuss examples from the current literature. Here, we define disease spread to include: 1) change in geographical or altitudinal distribution of pathogens, parasites, and vectors and the diseases they cause; 2) change in prevalence or severity of disease; and 3) emergence of novel diseases. Additionally, because wildlife species serve as reservoirs for zoonotic diseases that affect both animals and humans, we include select examples of the effect of climate change on the capacity of wildlife to harbor and spread these disease agents.