High prevalence of Yersinia pestis in black-tailed prairie dog colonies during an apparent enzootic phase of sylvatic plague
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- Hanson, D.A., Britten, H.B., Restani, M. et al. Conserv Genet (2007) 8: 789. doi:10.1007/s10592-006-9226-6
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Sylvatic plague (Yersinia pestis) was introduced into North America over 100 years ago. The disease causes high mortality and extirpations in black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), which is of conservation concern because prairie dogs provide habitat for the critically endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes). Our goal was to help elucidate the mechanism Y. pestis uses to persist in prairie ecosystems during enzootic and epizootic phases. We used a nested PCR protocol to assay for plague genomes in fleas collected from prairie dog burrows potentially exposed to plague in 1999 and 2000. No active plague epizootic was apparent in the 55 prairie dog colonies sampled in 2002 and 2003. However, 63% of the colonies contained plague-positive burrows in 2002, and 57% contained plague-positive burrows in 2003. Within plague-positive colonies, 23% of sampled burrows contained plague-positive fleas in 2002, and 26% contained plague-positive fleas in 2003. Of 15 intensively sampled colonies, there was no relationship between change in colony area and percentage of plague-positive burrows over the two years of the study. Some seasonality in plague prevalence was apparent because the highest percentages of plague-positive colonies were recorded in May and June. The surprisingly high prevalence of plague on study area colonies without any obvious epizootic suggested that the pathogen existed in an enzootic state in black-tailed prairie dogs. These findings have important implications for the management of prairie dogs and other species that are purported to be enzootic reservoir species.