How does biodiversity loss impact human health?


The health of our planet depends on the existence of million species, the ecological networks in which they interact with one another, and the complex habitats they live in and modify. Humans are just one component of this living network and, therefore, we rely on nature for goods and services that underpin our societies, economies, health and wellbeing.

Land use change, intensive farming and hunting of wild animals all increase our exposure to parasites and pathogens. Museum collections provide vital insights into how and why these relationships are changing, and the implications these have for our health and the health of our planet.

To help us to communicate how researchers at the Museum are addressing the on-going planetary emergency, we have developed ten Research Themes. One of these themes is Biodiversity and Health which will aim to prioritise research into the intersection between biodiversity change and emerging diseases.  

 ‘The biodiversity and health theme is important because animals closely related to and associated with humans are a critical part of disease pathways that ultimately affect our health. As our relationship with nature changes, so does our exposure to disease.’ Dr Ken Norris, Deputy Director of Science

‘I am really excited to share that we have appointed a new research theme leader to lead our work in this area, Dr Dave Redding is a leading expert on the role biodiversity plays in human health and will be joining the Museum in May.’ Ken says

 ‘Ultimately, we want to unlock our collections, harness our expertise, and drive forward research that protects biodiversity and improves health outcomes for people. There’s an incredible opportunity for the Museum to play a leading role in all of this.’

Preventing Pandemics

Zoonotic diseases are caused by pathogens that can jump from animals to humans, andmake up 75 per cent of newly emerging infectious diseases Some viral diseases like Ebola, monkeypox, the coronaviruses and HIV originated in animals before infecting and spreading in human populations in so-called spillover events. Others zoonotic diseases are caused by bacteria, such as plague and Lyme disease or by small parasites such as Malaria and Schistosomiasis.

Zoonoses in numbers Illustration by Esther Curtis

Human activities have increased the risk of infectious diseases emerging.  Changes in land use are closely linked to both emerging infectious diseases and outbreaks of existing zoonotic diseases. Opening previously impenetrable tropical forests by logging, building roads, farms and villages simultaneously decreases biodiversity in an area and increases the risk of disease, by bringing humans and their livestock into greater contact with potential sources of zoonotic infections.

Modern intensive agricultural and livestock production techniques also have an impact. Domestic animals are a key source of infectious diseases that spill-over into people. Examples include influenza, a virus that originates in domestic and wild birds, and tapeworms that originate in domestic cattle and pigs.

Natural history collections have an important role to play in understanding how pandemics happen and what could prevent them in the future. Collections enable us to track historic range shifts of hosts, vectors and pathogens, as well as identify trends in human, livestock and wildlife health to help predict future events. They can show where and when diseases might have emerged, and how they’ve changed over time. To maximise the potential of the Museum’s collections, we need to share this material with researchers worldwide, and collaborate on the solutions from nature to predict and prevent the next pandemic as well as looking for novel healthcare solutions from nature.

A Global Approach

Natural history museums contain and astonishing wealth of information about the life that has evolved on this planet ©Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution

A recent paper authored by 73 of the world’s largest natural history collections mapped the global collection across 28 countries and showed that they hold 1.1 billion objects between them. This is the first time the world’s biggest natural science collections have been surveyed together. It provides an overview of what is in those collections and an idea of how these collections could be used to address critical questions facing humanity today from biodiversity loss to climate and health. Until now, it has been difficult to compare the complete contents of large museums because their collections are not fully digitised and available globally.

The Museum’s Digitisation team have been digitising and releasing data openly on the Data Portal since 2014. So far we have digitised over 5.5 million of the Museum’s 80 million specimens. These have seen over 35 billion records downloaded via 630,000 download events and over 2,400 scientific papers cite our digital collection on topics from Human health to species distribution and Climate change.

Our global collections contain specimens collected hundreds of years ago. These have been collected from places and times that cannot be resampled and are unique. Scientists can use the latest advances in technology to analyse specimens, including extracting DNA to find useful traits for new medicines, but scientists can’t make use of resources they don’t know about. Sharing what we have within individual collections around the world with the leading Global Scientists will help us collaborate on solutions whether that be for biodiversity and health or the other issues facing people and the planet today.

Find more about our work to digitise the bat collection to prevent future pandemics in a previous blog. We would love to know what you would like to hear more of in relation to Biodiversity and Health. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram to let us know your thoughts.