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Evidence for the involvement of an alternate rodent host in the dynamics of introduced plague in prairie dogs

Stapp, Paul, Salkeld, Daniel J., Franklin, Heather A., Kraft, John P., Tripp, Daniel W., Antolin, Michael F., Gage, Kenneth L.
Journal of animal ecology 2009 v.78 no.4 pp. 807-817
Cynomys ludovicianus, Onychomys leucogaster, Oropsylla, Pleochaetis exilis, Yersinia pestis, burrows, grasshoppers, mice, plague, polymerase chain reaction, spring, Colorado, Great Plains region
1. The introduction of plague to North America is a significant threat to colonies of prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), a species of conservation concern in the Great Plains. Other small rodents are exposed to the causative agent, Yersinia pestis, during or after epizootics; yet, its effect on these rodents is not known, and their role in transmitting and maintaining plague in the absence of prairie dogs remains unclear. 2. We live-trapped small rodents and collected their fleas on 11 colonies before, during and after plague epizootics in Colorado, USA, from 2004 to 2006. Molecular genetic (polymerase chain reaction) assays were used to identify Y. pestis in fleas. 3. Abundance of northern grasshopper mice (Onychomys leucogaster) was low on sites following epizootics in 2004, and declined markedly following plague onset on other colonies in 2005. These changes coincided with exposure of grasshopper mice to plague, and with periods when mice became infested with large numbers of prairie dog fleas (Oropsylla hirsuta), including some that were infected with Y. pestis. Additionally, several Pleochaetis exilis, fleas restricted to grasshopper mice and never found on prairie dogs on our site, were polymerase chain reaction-positive for Y. pestis, indicating that grasshopper mice can infect their own fleas. No changes in abundance of other rodent species could be attributed to plague, and no other rodents hosted O. hirsuta during epizootics, or harboured Y. pestis-infected fleas. 4. In spring 2004, grasshopper mice were most numerous in colonies that suffered plague the following year, and the pattern of colony extinctions over a 12-year period mirrored patterns of grasshopper mouse abundance in our study area, suggesting that colonies with high densities of grasshopper mice may be more susceptible to outbreaks. We speculate that grasshopper mice help spread Y. pestis during epizootics through their ability to survive infection, harbour prairie dog fleas and, during their wide-ranging movements, transport infected fleas among burrows, which functionally connects prairie dog coteries that would otherwise be socially distinct.