, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 205-216

The Interplay of Plant and Animal Disease in a Changing Landscape: The Role of Sudden Aspen Decline in Moderating Sin Nombre Virus Prevalence in Natural Deer Mouse Populations

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Abstract

We examined how climate-mediated forest dieback regulates zoonotic disease prevalence using the relationship between sudden aspen decline (SAD) and Sin Nombre virus (SNV) as a model system. We compared understory plant community structure, small mammal community composition, and SNV prevalence on 12 study sites within aspen forests experiencing levels of SAD ranging from <10.0% crown fade to >95.0% crown fade. Our results show that sites with the highest levels of SAD had reduced canopy cover, stand density, and basal area, and these differences were reflected by reductions in understory vegetation cover. Conversely, sites with the highest levels of SAD had greater understory standing biomass, suggesting that vegetation on these sites was highly clustered. Changes in forest and understory vegetation structure likely resulted in shifts in small mammal community composition across the SAD gradient, as we found reduced species diversity and higher densities of deer mice, the primary host for SNV, on sites with the highest levels of SAD. Sites with the highest levels of SAD also had significantly greater SNV prevalence compared to sites with lower levels of SAD, which is likely a result of their abundance of deer mice. Collectively, results of our research provide strong evidence to show SAD has considerable impacts on vegetation community structure, small mammal density and biodiversity and the prevalence of SNV.