Flea sharing among sympatric rodent hosts: implications for potential plague effects on a threatened sciurid

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For vector-borne diseases, the abundance and competency of different vector species and their host preferences will impact the transfer of pathogens among hosts. Sylvatic plague is a lethal disease caused by the primarily flea-borne bacterium Yersinia pestis. Sylvatic plague was introduced into the western United States in the early 1900s and impacts many species of rodents. Plague may be suppressing populations of the threatened northern Idaho ground squirrel (Urocitellus brunneus) if a competent flea community is allowing plague to be maintained within the few extant sites that support this rare ground squirrel. We collected fleas from four species of sympatric rodents in central Idaho: northern Idaho ground squirrels, Columbian ground squirrels (Urocitellus columbianus), yellow-pine chipmunks (Tamias amoenus), and deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus). We evaluated which flea species were present and whether fleas were shared among the rodent community. We documented seven species of fleas among 3356 fleas collected from the four host species of rodents, and all seven species of fleas are known vectors of plague. Three of the seven flea species were detected on all four rodent species, demonstrating potential for spillover of plague (bridge vectors) in the rodent community. We used generalized linear mixed models to evaluate which abiotic and biotic factors influence flea abundance (total number of fleas, regardless of flea species, on each individual host of the four rodent host species). Factors that impacted flea abundance varied among the four host species, but flea abundance: (1) changed over summer depending on host species, (2) was greater on males, and (3) was impacted by summer and winter precipitation depending on host species. Our results suggest this diverse flea community has the capacity to transfer Y. pestis among populations of the four rodents if Y. pestis is present. Furthermore, the disease may be more likely to persist in some locations than others, those that have higher flea abundances, more sympatric hosts, or optimal conditions for fleas, and such high-risk sites can be identified based on their abiotic and biotic factors.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Flea sharing among sympatric rodent hosts: implications for potential plague effects on a threatened sciurid
Series title Ecosphere
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.3033
Volume 11
Issue 2
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher Ecological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Coop Res Unit Seattle, Fort Collins Science Center
Description e03033, 19 p.
Country United States
State Idaho
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