A new field method was developed to study ectoparasite prevalence on hosts.
We describe the approach using a study of fleas on prairie dogs.
Data were analyzed with occupancy models to account for imperfect detection.
There was a 99.3% probability of detecting a flea on a flea-occupied host.
Flea occupancy varied among months, sites, sampling plots, and hosts.
The field method can be used in the future to study ectoparasite communities.
Abstract Ectoparasites are often difficult to detect in the field. We developed a method that can be used with occupancy models to estimate the prevalence of ectoparasites on hosts, and to investigate factors that influence rates of ectoparasite occupancy while accounting for imperfect detection. We describe the approach using a study of fleas (Siphonaptera) on black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus). During each primary occasion (monthly trapping events), we combed a prairie dog three consecutive times to detect fleas (15 s/combing). We used robust design occupancy modeling to evaluate hypotheses for factors that might correlate with the occurrence of fleas on prairie dogs, and factors that might influence the rate at which prairie dogs are colonized by fleas. Our combing method was highly effective; dislodged fleas fell into a tub of water and could not escape, and there was an estimated 99.3% probability of detecting a flea on an occupied host when using three combings. While overall detection was high, the probability of detection was always <1.00 during each primary combing occasion, highlighting the importance of considering imperfect detection. The combing method (removal of fleas) caused a decline in detection during primary occasions, and we accounted for that decline to avoid inflated estimates of occupancy. Regarding prairie dogs, flea occupancy was heightened in old/natural colonies of prairie dogs, and on hosts that were in poor condition. Occupancy was initially low in plots with high densities of prairie dogs, but, as the study progressed, the rate of flea colonization increased in plots with high densities of prairie dogs in particular. Our methodology can be used to improve studies of ectoparasites, especially when the probability of detection is low. Moreover, the method can be modified to investigate the co-occurrence of ectoparasite species, and community level factors such as species richness and interspecific interactions.
Black-footed ferret conservation: a mix of scientific investigation and operational tasks
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93rd Annual Meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists, June 14-18, 2013, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Rocky Mountain Arsenal (RMA) National Wildlife Refuge reintroduced bison to a small pasture in 2007. Refuge managers needed information on the effects of bison grazing on vegetation communities in the bison pasture as well as information on how bison might affect other management priorities at RMA. In particular, RMA managers were interested in bison grazing effects on vegetation productivity, amount of vegetation utilization by bison, and habitat selection by bison to inform RMA herd managers and for potential expansion of bison range on the refuge. In 2007, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) designed a study to investigate bison grazing effects through measurement of vegetation in the 600-hectare enclosure where the bison are currently pastured. This research was a collaborative effort between USGS and RMA refuge staff and had active field components in 2007 and 2010. We found that the effects and intensity of bison grazing on vegetation in the RMA bison pasture is linked to prairie dog presence. Where both species were present, they were removing a significant amount of biomass compared to areas where only bison were present. Also, prairie dogs appeared to enhance the greater production of native forbs, but we were not able to identify the mechanism for this increased production. We were not able, however, to generate an accurate vegetation map for the bison pasture, and this limited our ability to achieve the level of statistical precision necessary to identify grazing impacts and habitat selection of bison.
Information on black-footed ferret biology collected within the framework of ferret conservation
Once feared to be extinct, black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) were rediscovered near Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981, resulting in renewed conservation and research efforts for this highly endangered species. A need for information directly useful to recovery has motivated much monitoring of ferrets since that time, but field activities have enabled collection of data relevant to broader biological themes. This special feature is placed in a context of similar books and proceedings devoted to ferret biology and conservation. Articles include general observations on ferrets, modeling of potential impacts of ferrets on prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.), discussions on relationships of ferrets to prairie dog habitats at several spatial scales (from individual burrows to patches of burrow systems) and a general treatise on the status of black-footed ferret recovery.
Patterns of surface burrow plugging in a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs occupied by black-footed ferrets
Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) can surface-plug openings to a burrow occupied by a black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes). At a coarse scale, surface plugs are more common in colonies of prairie dogs occupied by ferrets than in colonies without ferrets. However, little is known about spatial and temporal patterns of surface plugging in a colony occupied by ferrets. In a 452-ha colony of black-tailed prairie dogs in South Dakota, we sampled burrow openings for surface plugs and related those data to locations of ferrets observed during spotlight surveys. Of 67,574 burrow openings in the colony between June and September 2007, 3.7% were plugged. In a colony-wide grid of 80 m × 80 m cells, the occurrence of surface plugging (≥1 opening plugged) was greater in cells used by ferrets (93.3% of cells) than in cells not observably used by ferrets (70.6%). Rates of surface plugging (percentages of openings plugged) were significantly higher in cells used by ferrets (median = 3.7%) than in cells without known ferret use (median = 3.2%). Also, numbers of ferret locations in cells correlated positively with numbers of mapped surface plugs in the cells. To investigate surface plugging at finer temporal and spatial scales, we compared rates of surface plugging in 20-m-radius circle-plots centered on ferret locations and in random plots 1–4 days after observing a ferret (Jun–Oct 2007 and 2008). Rates of surface plugging were greater in ferret-plots (median = 12.0%) than in random plots (median = 0%). For prairie dogs and their associates, the implications of surface plugging could be numerous. For instance, ferrets must dig to exit or enter plugged burrows (suggesting energetic costs), and surface plugs might influence microclimates in burrows and consequently influence species that cannot excavate soil (e.g., fleas that transmit the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis).
Use of multi-opening burrow systems by black-footed ferrets
Multi-opening burrow systems constructed by prairie dogs (Cynomys) ostensibly provide escape routes when prairie dogs are pursued by predators capable of entering the burrows, such as black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes), or by predators that can rapidly dig into the tunnels, such as American badgers (Taxidea taxus). Because badgers also prey on ferrets, ferrets might similarly benefit from multi-opening burrow systems. Using an air blower, white-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys leucurus) burrow openings were tested for connectivity on plots occupied by black-footed ferrets and on randomly selected plots in Wyoming. Significantly more connected openings were found on ferret-occupied plots than on random plots. Connected openings might be due to modifications by ferrets in response to plugging by prairie dogs, due to selection by ferrets for complex systems with multiple openings that are already unobstructed, or simply due to ferrets lingering at kill sites that were multi-opening systems selected by their prairie dog prey.
Interface between black-footed ferret research and operational conservation
Questions and problems that emerged during operational conservation of black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) have been addressed by a wide variety of studies. Early results from such studies often were communicated orally during meetings of recovery groups and in written form using memoranda, unpublished reports, and theses. Typically, implementation of results preceded their publication in widely distributed journals. Many of these studies eventually were published in journals, and we briefly summarize the contents of 8 volumes and special features of journals that have been dedicated to the biology of ferrets and issues in ferret recovery. This year marks the 30th anniversary of rediscovery of the black-footed ferret, and the 7 papers of the following Special Feature summarize data collected over nearly that span of time.
Black-footed ferret digging activity in summer
Eads, D.A., D.E. Biggins, D. Marsh, J.J. Millspaugh, and T.M. Livieri
Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) excavate soil from prairie dog (Cynomys spp.) burrows, thereby creating characteristic soil deposits at burrow openings. These soil deposits have been observed only rarely in summer. We monitored adult ferrets during June–October of the years 2007 and 2008 on a 452-ha colony of black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) in the Conata Basin, South Dakota. We located and identified ferret excavations during nighttime spotlight surveys for ferrets and daytime sampling of prairie dog burrow openings around locations where ferrets were located via spotlight. We accumulated 48 observations of in-process or recently completed ferret excavations during spotlight surveys (21 in 2007, 27 in 2008) and located 51 diggings during daytime burrow sampling (25 in 2007, 26 in 2008). We located diggings during 5.5% of spotlight observations, most frequently in July–August. These results collectively suggest ferrets may frequently excavate soil in summer, because prairie dogs frequently use soil to plug burrow openings and tunnels in defense against ferrets. Prairie dogs might frequently destroy soil deposits left by ferrets during summer, thereby reducing detection of diggings by biologists.
Postbreeding resource selection by adult black-footed ferrets in the Conata Basin, South Dakota
We investigated postbreeding resource selection by adult black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) on a 452-ha black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) colony in the Conata Basin of South Dakota during 2007–2008. We used resource selection functions (RSFs) to evaluate relationships between numbers of ferret locations and numbers of prairie dog burrow openings (total or active), distances to colony edges, and connectivity of patches of burrow openings. In both years ferrets selected areas near edges of the prairie dog colony where active burrow openings were abundant. In the interior of the colony ferrets selected areas with low abundance of active burrow openings. At times, prairie dog productivity (i.e., pup abundance) might be greatest at colony edges often characterized by grasses; ferrets are likely to select areas where refuge and vulnerable prey are abundant Ferrets could have used interior areas with few active burrow openings as corridors between edge areas with many active burrow openings. Also, in areas with few active burrow openings ferrets spend more time aboveground during movements and, thus, are likely to be more easily detected. These results complement previous studies demonstrating importance of refuge and prey in fine-scale resource selection by ferrets and provide insight into factors that might influence edge effects on ferret space use. Conservation and restoration of colonies with areas with high densities of burrow openings and prairie dogs, and corridors between such areas, are needed for continued recovery of the black-footed ferret. RSFs could complement coarse-scale habitat evaluations by providing finer-scale assessments of habitat for the black-footed ferret.
Habitat use by black-footed ferrets on black-tailed and white-tailed prairie dog colonies
Eads, D.A., B.E. Holmes, D.E. Biggins, D.S. Jachowski, J.T. Millspaugh, T.M. Livieri, and M.R. Matchett