Investigating the Ecology of West Nile Virus in the United States

American Crow. Photo by David Liebman PinkGuppy 60. Used with permission.


Barbara J. Abraham1,3 and Josephine Rodriguez2

1 - Department of Biological Sciences, Hampton University, Hampton, VA 23668

2 - National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93101

3 - Corresponding Author: Barbara J. Abraham (


How do biotic and abiotic environmental factors explain the historic, present, and future prevalence and range of West Nile Virus (WNV) in the US?


Abiotic and biotic environmental factors, biodiversity, epidemiology


Use maps, online databases, and peer-reviewed literature to: (1) learn background information on WNV (history of emergence in the US; life cycle, hosts, and vectors; different forms of WNV disease and susceptibility of various human age groups) and (2) generate and test hypotheses correlating human, avian, and mosquito WNV infection with avian biodiversity, presence/abundance of different avian hosts, climatology, topography, land use, and presence of specific habitats such as wetlands (Hometown Approach). Use either Supplements (in Resource Files) or Internet databases to analyze data in graphs and interpret maps to answer questions (Structured Approach).


  • Ecoinformatics: identification of relevant, reliable online information; downloading data into Excel files; making, downloading, and interpreting online maps
  • Science process: generating and testing hypotheses, manipulating and analyzing data in tables and graphs; communicating with PowerPoint or poster presentations, writing a research report in scientific format
  • Collaboration (Hometown Approach).
  • Graphing data, analyzing data, interpreting maps (Structured Approach).


Guided inquiry or open-ended inquiry, cooperative learning, critical thinking.


Research proposal; tables, graphs, maps; research report; poster or PowerPoint presentation (Hometown Approach). Written assignment with graphs and answered questions (Structured Approach).



  • Full Article Text [doc], [pdf]

Description of other Resource Files:

  1. Other Resource Files for the Hometown Approach (students get their own data from online sites). The first five files contain instructions for using the Web sites and sample data sets or maps from each site. These are not meant to be used in analysis, but may be given to students at the discretion of the instructor. Remember to check whether the Web sites have been updated before giving these files to students.
    • National Atlas [docx]
    • United States Historical Climatology Network (US HCN) [docx]
    • North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) [docx]
    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention West Nile Virus [docx]
    • US Geological Survey Disease Maps [docx]
    • Additional Resources – may be supplied to students if the instructor chooses:
      • Format for a Research Proposal [doc]
      • Format for a Scientific Research Report [doc]
      • Glossary of terms related to West Nile Virus [docx]
      • Species Diversity Calculations [doc]
      • Additional Peer-reviewed Sources on WNV [docx]
      • Additional Web Sites for In-depth or International Study [doc]
  2. Other Resource Files for the Structured Approach (or Structured Exercises):
    • Student Handout for Structured Exercises - to be provided to students for completing the Structured Exercises. [doc]
    • Faculty Cheat Sheet for Structured Exercises - possible answers to the Structured Exercises. [doc]
    • Supplement 1 for Structured Exercises: West Nile Virus Human Neuroinvasive Disease Incidence in the United States for 1999-2009 - data for Part 1 of the Structured Exercises if the Internet is not used. [pdf]
    • Supplement 2 for Structured Exercises: Tables of Human Cases Reported to CDC 1999 to 2010 - data for Part 1 of the Structured Exercises if the Internet is not used. [pdf]
    • Supplement 3 for Structured Exercises: USGS WNV Maps 2003-2010 for CA - data for Part 2 of the Structured Exercises if the Internet is not used. [pdf]
    • Supplement 4 for Structured Exercises: June, July, Aug 1999-2010 Temps - data for Part 3 of the Structured Exercises if the Internet is not used. [pdf]
    • Supplement 5 for Structured Exercises: Climate at a Glance Summer Temps 2000-2010 - data for Part 3 of the Structured Exercises if the Internet is not used. [pdf]


This work resulted from a Distributed Undergraduate Seminar (Engaging Undergraduate Students in Ecological Investigations Using Large, Public Data Sets) conducted through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), a Center funded by NSF Grant #EF-0553768, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the State of California, PI: Teresa Mourad, Ecological Society of America; Co-PIs: Wendy Gram, NEON Inc., and Bruce Grant, Widener University. The authors also wish to thank Amelia Nuding, Stephanie Hampton, Tom Langen, Christopher Beck and two anonymous reviewers for their help in developing the module, and M. Beals for allowing use of his material on diversity calculations. Josephine Rodriguez was supported by a NCEAS postdoctoral fellowship.


Barbara J. Abraham and Josephine Rodriguez. September 2012, posting date. Investigating the Ecology of West Nile Virus in the United States. Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology, Vol. 8: Practice #3 [online].