Toxoplasma gondii infection in alpine red deer (Cervus elaphus): Its spread and effects on fertility

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Abstract

In contrast to the depth of knowledge on the pathological effects of parasitism in domestic animals, the impact of the vast majority of parasites on wildlife hosts is poorly understood and, besides, information from domestics is rarely usable to disclose the parasites' impact on free-ranging populations' dynamics. Here we use Toxoplasmosis as a study model since, until now, the infection process and the protozoan's effects in natural conditions has received little attention. We analysed 81 sera from red deer (Cervus elaphus) sampled in Italian Alps and through generalized linear models we evaluated (1) the epidemiological factors influencing T. gondii infection dynamics; (2) its impact on female fertility. High seroprevalence of T. gondii infection was recorded in yearling (1 year-old; prevalence = 52.4%) and adult (>2 year-old; prevalence = 51.3%) red deer, while calves (<1 year-old) did not contract the infection suggesting horizontal transmission as the main route of infection. The stable prevalence between yearlings and adults and the higher serological titres of younger individuals lead to two alternative infection processes suggesting a difference between age classes or in acquiring the infection or in responding to the pathogen. No associations between T. gondii serological titres and pregnancy status was observed indicating no direct effect on the probability of being pregnant; nevertheless a relation between females' higher serological titres and lower foetal development emerged, suggesting potential effects of the parasite infection on deer reproduction. The results demonstrate high seroprevalence of T. gondii infection in free-ranging red deer and, furthermore, the effect on foetal development suggests the potential impact of the parasite on red deer fertility and thus on its population dynamics.

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Formenti, N., Trogu, T., Pedrotti, L., Gaffuri, A., Lanfranchi, P., & Ferrari, N. (2015). Toxoplasma gondii infection in alpine red deer (Cervus elaphus): Its spread and effects on fertility. PLoS ONE, 10(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0138472

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