credit Mike_Toms

The Institute of Zoology (IoZ) is part of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and has run citizen science projects for wildlife disease investigations since the 1980s. We began by performing post-mortem examinations on garden birds from incidents reported to us directly, or via the RSPB, by members of the public on an ad hoc basis. The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare was instrumental in the development of this research, providing financial support in these early years. This grew into a formal citizen-science surveillance project: the Garden Bird Health initiative (GBHi), chaired by UFAW, which was a partnership between the IoZ, the British Trust for Ornithology, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and other organisations. The GBHi enabled us to identify a range of diseases affecting garden birds in Great Britain and provided information on how best to manage these if they occurred in a garden. Most importantly, the GBHi identified the emergence, spread and impact of finch trichomonosis and enabled us to provide reassurance and advice to members of the public who found diseased or dead birds in their gardens.

In 1989, the IoZ initiated a study into the health of captive-bred red kites (Milvus milvus) before and after their release as part of a national scheme to reintroduce the species to England. Following release, the health of these birds was monitored by investigating the cause of death when red kites were found dead by volunteer networks. This project expanded to include a wide range of other species being released for conservation purposes and became known as the Disease Risk Analysis and Health Surveillance  (DRAHS) project. Again, this work has relied on public engagement and involvement to achieve its goals. Perhaps the most important result from this work was the discovery that the decline of the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is mainly caused by a deadly virus (called squirrelpox virus) carried benignly by the introduced grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).

Credit: Jill Pakenham

In 1990, the IoZ began a research programme (the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme – CSIP) investigating causes of death of stranded marine animals around the UK coast. This programme relies on the public to report sightings of stranded cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), seals, marine turtles and basking sharks. In addition, the public contributed survey data on harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) and grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) during the 2002/03 seal distemper virus epidemic. Since its inception, the CSIP has studied links between human activity and marine animal disease. These have included the toxic effects of persistent organic pollutants, the incidence of bycatch and boat-strike, the discovery of gas embolism disease (a condition analagous to the ‘bends’ in humans) and strandings as a potential result of exposure to marine man-made noise.

In 1992, the Frog Mortality Project (FMP), a partnership between IoZ and Froglife, was launched to investigate the causes of death of amphibians in Great Britain. Again, this project involved members of the public who supplied reports and specimens for post-mortem examination.  The FMP led to the discovery of a new viral disease of frogs and toads in Britain, caused by a ranavirus – the first time a ranavirus had been found in the UK and the first one that had been found infecting amphibians in Europe.  Our research showed that the virus was most likely an incursion from North America. Results from the FMP tracked the emergence and spread of ranavirus disease across the country. We have since shown that this virus is causing population declines of the common frog (Rana temporaria) and is also affecting some of our other native amphibians.

All of these projects have had strong track records in public engagement and, ultimately, in substantially increasing public awareness of wildlife disease issues.  These projects have enabled us to determine the profound impacts of disease epidemics on UK garden wildlife species, and to identify other, emerging disease threats, e.g. avian pox infection in great tits, which could potentially have a serious nationwide impact. Also, they show that wildlife disease threats are changeable and unpredictable, and highlight the need for effective multi-species garden wildlife health surveillance. Our research has shown that disease threatens not only rare, but also common, species, and we believe wholeheartedly that disease investigations, in parallel with population monitoring, are vital in informing conservation strategies across species. Hence, we have now launched the Garden Wildlife Health project, which encompasses the GBHi and FMP and extends the range of species to include reptiles and hedgehogs.