Light at night lengthens how long birds can spread West Nile virus

house sparrows
Another reason for caution in lighting up the night: Study finds it makes it harder for house sparrows to fight off West Nile virus. Mosquitoes can then bite infected birds and later spread the virus to people.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — In many places, a moonless night sky is no longer inky black. Artificial lighting can give the night a persistent glow. This so-called light pollution can affect animals. And new data now suggest those effects might trickle through ecosystems.

Even moderate light pollution, a new study finds, can roughly double how long a house sparrow infected with West Nile virus remains at high risk of spreading disease. If bitten by a mosquito, that virus can now spread to other animals, including people.

In the United States, house sparrows are about as widespread as is artificial lighting. So they made a useful test species in a new first-of-its-kind study, says Meredith Kernbach. Her team used these birds to test whether light at night might affect the spread of West Nile disease. Kernbach’s work combines ecology with the study of immune systems. She works at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

For the new study, she brought sparrows into the lab. Some spent the night in an area that was dimly lit. These birds were slower in fighting off West Nile infections than were lab sparrows that spent the night in full darkness. Kernbach reported her findings here, January 7, at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.

The West Nile virus needs a mosquito to spread from bird to…

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