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Epidemiology: An emerging research tool for marine science and conservation

20 Aug 2014


As a wildlife epidemiologist, I’m often asked what type of skin conditions I see most often in the species I work with, unintentionally being confused with a dermatologist who works with diseases of the epidermis. So I set about to inform people about epidemiology and how it works behind-the-scenes in so many fields, being such a versatile tool with wide applications. At its core, epidemiology is the study of the occurrence of disease and health-related conditions in populations of individuals relative to their environment, demographics, and other intrinsic and extrinsic factors.


This relatively nascent discipline in marine research may be useful to marine scientists and managers in a variety of ways including identifying environmental, anthropogenic and demographic risk factors for specific diseases of marine life, determining the probability of of occurrence of disease, injuries, and death, developing population health metrics and reports of surveyed populations, hypothesis generation and testing, and long-term risk assessments.


Epidemiology has an important role in observing contemporary impacts from

climate, humans, and other processes for their impact on the health and survival of marine species and their environment. It affords a method to assess the quality of data sets within analyses, identifying data needs and limitations, and recommendations for further data collection. It can also describe the relative size and nature of problems that necessitate more thorough investigation, offer a metric for comparison between populations in order to quantify the effects of various stressors on life history metrics such as fecundity and survival, and a means to analyze a number of desperate data sets of varying quality to quantify effects and test hypotheses.


Specific examples of epidemiology applied in the marine field include the

identification of environmental and anthropogenic risk factors for leptospirosis in California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), analyzing and comparing health and life history metrics between healthy Bristol Bay and endangered Cook Inlet belugas (Delphinapterus leucas), modeling the impact of contaminants and decreased energetics in cetacean population projections, and identifying and monitoring of terrestrial-source pathogens that may negatively impact marine ecosystems such as coral reefs. Other potential applications include conducting trend analyses and interpretations of retrospective data collected from surveys and long-term monitoring projects, identification of factors that increase the risk of fishery interactions, and analyzing other human-related impacts to marine species. This set of tools can ultimately help marine scientists and resource managers standardize prioritization of research needs, evaluate risk factors for priority concerns, and translate science into policy and management.


By Stephanie A. Norman,

Marine-Med: Marine Research, Epidemiology, and Veterinary Medicine.





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