Plague is a reemerging, rodent-associated zoonosis caused by the flea-borne bacterium Yersinia pestis. As a vector-borne disease, rates of plague transmission may increase when fleas are abundant. Fleas are highly susceptible to desiccation under hot-dry conditions; we posited that their densities decline during droughts. We evaluated this hypothesis with black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) in New Mexico, June-August 2010-2012. Precipitation was relatively plentiful during 2010 and 2012 but scarce during 2011, the driest spring-summer on record for the northeastern grasslands of New Mexico. Unexpectedly, fleas were 200% more abundant in 2011 than in 2010 and 2012. Prairie dogs were in 27% better condition during 2010 and 2012, and they devoted 287% more time to grooming in 2012 than in 2011. During 2012, prairie dogs provided with supplemental food and water were in 23% better condition and carried 40% fewer fleas. Collectively, these results suggest that during dry years, prairie dogs are limited by food and water, and they exhibit weakened defenses against fleas. Long-term data are needed to evaluate the generality of whether droughts increase flea densities and how changes in flea abundance during sequences of dry and wet years might affect plague cycles in mammalian hosts.
Eads, D. A., Biggins, D. E., Long, D. H., Gage, K. L., & Antolin, M. F. (2016). Droughts may increase susceptibility of prairie dogs to fleas: Incongruity with hypothesized mechanisms of plague cycles in rodents. Journal of Mammalogy, 97(4), 1044–1053. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmammal/gyw035
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