Plague cycles in two rodent species from China: Dry years might provide context for epizootics in wet years

Product Type: 

Journal Article

Year: 

2016

Author(s): 

Eads, D.A., D.E. Biggins, L. Xu, and Q. Lui.

Suggested Citation: 

Eads, D.A., D.E. Biggins, L. Xu, and Q. Lui. 2016. Plague cycles in two rodent species from China: dry years might provide context for epizootics in wet years. Ecosphere 7:e01495.DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.1495

Plague, a rodent-associated, flea-borne zoonosis, is one of the most notorious diseases in history. Rates of plague transmission can increase when fleas are abundant. Fleas commonly desiccate and die when reared under dry conditions in laboratories, suggesting fleas will be suppressed during droughts in the wild, thus reducing the rate at which plague spreads among hosts. In contrast, fleas might increase in abundance when precipitation is plentiful, producing epizootic outbreaks during wet years. We tested these hypotheses using a 27-yr data set from two rodents in Inner Mongolia, China: Mongolian gerbils (Meriones unguiculatus) and Daurian ground squirrels (Spermophilus dauricus). For both species of rodents, fleas were most abundant during years preceded by dry growing seasons. For gerbils, the prevalence of plague increased during wet years preceded by dry growing seasons. If precipitation is scarce during the primary growing season, succulent plants decline in abundance and, consequently, herbivorous rodents can suffer declines in body condition. Fleas produce more offspring and better survive when parasitizing food-limited hosts, because starving animals tend to exhibit inefficient behavioral and immunological defenses against fleas. Further, rodent burrows might buffer fleas from xeric conditions aboveground during dry years. After a dry year, fleas might be abundant due to the preceding drought, and if precipitation and succulent plants become more plentiful, rodents could increase in density, thereby creating connectivity that facilitates the spread of plague. Moreover, in wet years, mild temperatures might increase the efficiency at which fleas transmit the plague bacterium, while also helping fleas to survive as they quest among hosts. In this way, dry years could provide context for epizootics of plague in wet years.

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