Ecology drives the worldwide distribution of human diseases

PLoS Biol. 2004 Jun;2(6):e141. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0020141. Epub 2004 Jun 15.


Identifying the factors underlying the origin and maintenance of the latitudinal diversity gradient is a central problem in ecology, but no consensus has emerged on which processes might generate this broad pattern. Interestingly, the vast majority of studies exploring the gradient have focused on free-living organisms, ignoring parasitic and infectious disease (PID) species. Here, we address the influence of environmental factors on the biological diversity of human pathogens and their global spatial organization. Using generalized linear multivariate models and Monte Carlo simulations, we conducted a series of comparative analyses to test the hypothesis that human PIDs exhibit the same global patterns of distribution as other taxonomic groups. We found a significant negative relationship between latitude and PID species richness, and a nested spatial organization, i.e., the accumulation of PID species with latitude, over large spatial scales. Additionally, our results show that climatic factors are of primary importance in explaining the link between latitude and the spatial pattern of human pathogens. Based on our findings, we propose that the global latitudinal species diversity gradient might be generated in large part by biotic interactions, providing strong support for the idea that current estimates of species diversity are substantially underestimated. When parasites and pathogens are included, estimates of total species diversity may increase by more than an order of magnitude.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biodiversity*
  • Climate*
  • Communicable Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Demography
  • Ecology
  • Environment*
  • Geography
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Monte Carlo Method
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Parasitic Diseases / epidemiology*