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Nature’s wings and their passengers

Brian Coles BVSc Hon.Mem.ECZM HonFRCVS

Fellowship Day 2019

Report of presentation

One of the most senior members of the RCVS Fellowship, 92-year-old Dr Brian Coles, described the motivation behind his recently published book “Nature’s Wings and Their Passengers”. Having become increasingly frustrated by scientific inaccuracies in the popular press, such as frequent confusion between bacteria and viruses, he had, he said, set out to “put the biological world straight”.

His book was not a standard textbook. Instead, it had been “written for the intelligent man or woman in the street who may not have had any formal education in biology”. It discussed the origins and evolution of infectious disease in human beings, birds and other winged creatures.

“When Charles Darwin wrote his Origin of Species in 1859, he was considering the known living world at that time, and not simply how it started,” Dr Coles said. “He didn’t realise that underlying all life there were viruses and bacteria, many causing disease and most disseminated by nature’s winged creatures.”

Birds, for instance, spread avian influenza virus, with their migratory patterns extending over great distances. Bats carried rabies (lyssaviruses) and other viruses over localised areas; fruit bats, for example, which could be extremely large, carried a variety of viruses, including Ebola, flaviviruses, haemorrhagic fever and hendra virus, which affects both humans and horses.

However, it was not just winged vertebrates that carried disease-causing agents. Many winged invertebrates could also spread agents such as malaria parasites and alphaviruses. Houseflies could be mechanical vectors for multiple different bacteria, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. Sandflies could transmit leishmaniosis.

Dr Coles had also considered the parasitic ‘passengers’ – both internal and external – that could be carried by wild birds. He explained that while the passengers themselves may not be contagious, they were capable of transmitting disease to a range of other animals, not simply birds.

“The world of winged creatures and disease is much more complex than Darwin, or those that followed him, could have conceived,” he said.

Ending on a personal note, he said that, despite now being in his 93rd year, he was “still thinking, writing and acting as a voluntary coroner for Chester Zoo”, adding he had had “a fascinating life and a fulfilling career” and that he had, at least, “avoided my worst fear, that of spending my life working in an office”.

Following his presentation, Dr Coles was asked who he thought was to blame for the lack of knowledge among the public about the causes of disease. He believed that responsibility lay with both the media and the education system: “I think education in our schools teaches a lot of biology, but it doesn’t really teach much about disease. And I think the media blow up a lot of things which are just not true. This is what motivated me to write this book – I thought these people really don’t know what they are talking about!”