Epidemiology, Research

Why Your Ecology Research Study Needs Epidemiology

Author Chandana Balasubramanian , 04-Jan-2022

Ecology is the study of the interactions between any living beings – all creatures great and small – and their relationship with their environment and ecosystem. This covers plants, animals, microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, and more.


Epidemiology is the study of diseases in populations of humans. Epidemiologists study why, where, how, and when diseases arise and spread. These descriptions are a bird’s eye view of both fields.



Why is Epidemiological Data Important in Ecology and the Study of Our Natural Environment?


Epidemiological data is non-experimental data about populations, outbreaks, pathogens, and infectious diseases. Examples of epidemiological data include the prevalence, prevalence rates, incidence, incidence rates, mortality, mortality rates for a particular illness, globally or region-specific. The biological structures of pathogens and even symptoms in populations are types of data frequently used in epidemiology. In fact, biology can play a large role in both epidemiological and ecological data.

Epidemiological data is important because it empowers public health officials and medical professionals to better understand diseases, including emerging infectious ones. This information helps them protect their communities better from the spread of illness and develop more accurate and effective diagnostic and therapeutic measures for disease control.

Over the decades, as the fields of ecology and epidemiology progressed, the lines between them have blurred considerably. The sophisticated data gathering and predictive analytical resources available today show us that the impact of environmental changes due to pathogens and the spread of illness are inseparable. Scientists who thrive in the intersection between ecology and epidemiology are known as ecological epidemiologists.

Ecological studies about viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens paint a complete picture when considering the epidemiology of disease and host-human interactions.


Types of Ecology That Benefit Most From Epidemiological Data and Biology



Population ecology involves studying the impact of the environment on living beings. When the subjects being studied are pathogens capable of transmitting disease in humans, it can become harder to tell where the epidemiology ends and the ecology begins.


Viral ecology (a type of organismal ecology or microbial ecology) studies the interaction between viruses and their hosts, including humans. Many viruses are benign until they mutate and potentially harm their hosts and spread infection. An outbreak of a new viral mutation can cause regional or even worldwide devastation – as evidenced by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

Ecological studies of viruses that include data on the prevalence, incidence, and history of outbreaks for related illnesses offer more insight into all the factors that influence these mutations.


Bacterial ecology is focused on the interaction between bacteria, their hosts, and the environment. Research about illness-causing bacteria may include epidemiological data to help forecast disease spread, effects of anti-microbial resistance to population health, individuals, and more. Biology studies also play a role here as well.


Disease ecology is “the study of the underlying principles that influence the Spatio-temporal patterns .” The difference between epidemiologists is that they study what causes illness, the causes, the biology of the pathogen, and how to identify the root cause[1]. The natural world and environment can play a large role in illness and these types of ecologists know it. 


Medical ecology is an emerging science that fuses ecological science with the fields of medicine and public health. This field is incredibly valuable in today’s age when a small outbreak can turn into a global pandemic rapidly. Understanding the why’s and how’s of infections, how to diagnose and treat them, and what public health measures may be effective can help save lives.


Behavioral ecology studies how organisms evolve and adapt to changes in their habitat [2]. The field involves learning how the behavior of the study subject is affected by nature.

For example, Pipistrellus bats have changed their behavior based on environmental and natural changes. Bats have begun living closer to humans due to deforestation and the development of fruit and vegetable farms close to human habitation [3].


Community ecology is the study of how a population of species in a particular area or region organizes and functions as a community. For example, an analysis of how plants, animals, and other organisms in a forest interact falls under community ecology. Examining the interaction between species in a lake is also categorized under community ecology.

Robert D. Holt and Andy Dobson discuss why it is beneficial to extend the principles of community ecology to address the epidemiology of host-pathogen systems. They make the case that most emerging sicknesses involve more than one host, and host-pathogen interactions are complex [4].


Soil ecology is the study of how organisms in soil interact with others and their environment. Soil scientists help us understand more about the effects of climate change, protect our health by growing our food in nutritious soil, and much more. Soil ecology also helps us protect our water bodies and learn about the impact of pollutants and pathogens in soil and water on their environment. Epidemiological data can provide insight into the types of pathogens present in a particular soil and their risk.

There are many more fields of ecology. Many of them can leverage the complementary support that epidemiology data brings. Evaluating the effects of ecology and epidemiology on diseases strengthens both fields.


Examples of Ecological Studies That Used GIDEON Epidemiology Data to Understand the Natural Environment and Disease:


  • Nipah Virus: Nipah virus outbreaks, when once confined to Southeast Asia, are now a growing concern in the West. One of the reasons why is that ecological changes are driving closer bat-human interactions and deforestation. Factoring in this helped make the research study from Gokhale et al. more robust [3].


  • Brucellosis: Ramírez and Garcia (2021) studied the multi-factorial reasons why disease control for the zoonotic infection Brucellosis is difficult in Mexico and other Latin American countries. They used epidemiology data to understand the global prevalence and incidence [5].  


  • Sin Nombre Hantavirus: Studies about Sin Nombre Hantavirus from the University of San Francisco reviews the effects of wildfires, human interference, and climate change on rodent-borne pathogens. While rare, it has a 35% fatality rate in humans. The author used the GIDEON database to analyze and map the geological distribution of zoonotic illnesses. This information was used to help identify future pathogenic hotspots [6].   


  • Arthropod-borne diseases: Allahverdipour and Akbarzadeh published a chapter on ‘Biocontrol for Arthropods of Medical and Veterinary Importance in Iran’ in a book on biological control of insects and mite pests in Iran. The authors use epidemiology data (sourced from the GIDEON database) to understand why the unique geographical location of Iran proves difficult to control arthropod-borne illnesses [7].


  • Akinsemolu et al. (2018) published about the toxic effects of large-scale crude oil extraction in a region in Nigeria. They studied toxicity in the terrestrial soil in the area. As part of this research, they used the GIDEON database to identify various bacterial pathogens found in the soil [8].


There are over 200 publications that used GIDEON epidemiology data for their studies; several are ecological in nature. A large amount also focuses on the natural environment and its role in impacting health.


How Ecologists Choose Their Research Interest


As researchers and graduate students in ecology choose their research problem, it may be helpful to consider epidemiological data in their analysis, reporting, and publications.

Epidemiological data, like in the comprehensive GIDEON database, can help ecologists with all three basic methods of ecological research: observation, modeling, and experimentation.  

Academics can use distinctions between types of ecology to find the right departments of study, target sources of funding, and educate their students. However, the fields of ecology and epidemiology have a natural symbiotic relationship.

Research about illnesses and public health that include both aspects – ecological and epidemiological – will give the reader more depth and insight into how a particular illness affects us and our environment.



[1]G. E. Glass and V. Carruthers, “Ecological Principles of Disease Systems: Population Interactions and Dynamics,” The Johns Hopkins University and Gregory E. Glass. A, 2006.
[2]K. Rutledge, T. Ramroop, D. Boudreau, M. McDaniel, S. Teng, E. Sprout, H. Costa, H. Hall and J. Hunt, “Types of Ecology,” National Geographic Society, 09 04 2019. [Online][Accessed 15 12 2021].
[3]M. D. Gokhale, M. Sreelekshmy, A. B. Sudeep, A. Shete, R. Jain, P. D. Yadav, B. Mathapati and D. T. Mourya, “Detection of possible Nipah virus infection in Rousettus leschenaultii and Pipistrellus Pipistrellus bats in Maharashtra, India,” Journal of Infection and Public Health, vol. 14, no. 8, pp. 1010-1012, 2021.
[4]R. D. Holt and A. P. Dobson, “Extending the principles of community ecology to address the epidemiology of host-pathogen systems,” in Disease Ecology , OUP, 2005, pp. 6-27.
[5]C. V. H. Ramírez and D. C. S. García, “Brucellosis in humans and livestock,” Brazilian Journal of Animal and Environmental Research, vol. 4, pp. 5599-5606, 2021.
[6]The role of climate change, wildfire and human interference in the potential spread of Sin Nombre Hantavirus in North America,” 20 5 2021. [Online][Accessed 15 12 2021].
[7]H. H. Allahverdipour and K. Akbarzadeh, “Biocontrol for Arthropods of Medical and Veterinary Importance in Iran,” in Biological Control of Insect and Mite Pests in Iran. Progress in Biological Control, Springer, Cham, 2021.
[8]A. A. Akinsemolu, F. A. Akinyosoye and D. J. Arotupin, “Ecotoxicological Dynamics of the Coastal Soil Ecosystem of Oil Producing Regions of Ondo State, Nigeria,” Open Journal of Ecology, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 250-269, 2018.
Chandana Balasubramanian

Chandana Balasubramanian is an experienced healthcare executive who writes on the intersection of healthcare and technology. She is the President of Global Insight Advisory Network, and has a Masters degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

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