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Examination of the interaction between age-specific predation and chronic disease in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

January 7, 2022
  1. Predators may create healthier prey populations by selectively removing diseased individuals. Predators typically prefer some ages of prey over others, which may, or may not, align with those prey ages that are most likely to be diseased.
  2. The interaction of age-specific infection and predation has not been previously explored and likely has sizable effects on disease dynamics. We hypothesize that predator cleansing effects will be greater when the disease and predation occur in the same prey age groups.
  3. We examine the predator cleansing effect using a model where both vulnerability to predators and pathogen prevalence vary with age. We tailor this model to chronic wasting disease (CWD) in mule deer and elk populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, with empirical data from Yellowstone grey wolves and cougars.
  4. Model results suggest that under moderate, yet realistic, predation pressure from cougars and wolves independently, predators may decrease CWD outbreak size substantially and delay the accumulation of symptomatic deer and elk. The magnitude of this effect is driven by the ability of predators to selectively remove late-stage CWD infections that are likely the most responsible for transmission, but this may not be the age class they typically select. Thus, predators that select for infected young adults over uninfected juveniles have a stronger cleansing effect, and these effects are strengthened when transmission rates increase with increasing prey morbidity. There are also trade-offs from a management perspective—that is, increasing predator kill rates can result in opposing forces on prey abundance and CWD prevalence.
  5. Our modelling exploration shows that predators have the potential to reduce prevalence in prey populations when prey age and disease severity are considered, yet the strength of this effect is influenced by predators' selection for demography or body condition. Current CWD management focuses on increasing cervid hunting as the primary management tool, and our results suggest predators may also be a useful tool under certain conditions, but not necessarily without additional impacts on host abundance and demography. Protected areas with predator populations will play a large role in informing the debate over predator impacts on disease.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title Examination of the interaction between age-specific predation and chronic disease in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
DOI 10.1111/1365-2656.13661
Authors Ellen E. Brandell, Paul Cross, Douglas W. Smith, William J. Rogers, Nathan L. Galloway, Daniel R. MacNulty, Daniel R. Stahler, John J. Treanor, Peter J. Hudson
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Animal Ecology
Series Number
Index ID 70228524
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center