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Prairie dog presence affects occurrence patterns of disease vectors on small mammals

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Wildlife disease is recognized as a burgeoning threat to imperiled species and aspects of host and vector community ecology have been shown to have significant effects on disease dynamics. The black-tailed prairie dog is a species of conservation concern that is highly susceptible to plague, a flea-transmitted disease. Prairie dogs (Cynomys) alter the grassland communities in which they exist and have been shown to affect populations of small rodents, which are purported disease reservoirs. To explore potential ecological effects of black-tailed prairie dogs on plague dynamics, we quantified flea occurrence patterns on small mammals in the presence and absence of prairie dogs at 8 study areas across their geographic range. Small mammals sampled from prairie dog colonies showed significantly higher flea prevalence, flea abundance, and relative flea species richness than those sampled from off-colony sites. Successful plague transmission likely is dependent on high prevalence and abundance of fleas that can serve as competent vectors. Prairie dogs may therefore facilitate the maintenance of plague by increasing flea occurrence on potential plague reservoir species. Our data demonstrate the previously unreported ecological influence of prairie dogs on vector species assemblages, which could influence disease dynamics.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2008

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