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Impacts of environmental conditions on fleas in black-tailed prairie dog burrows

November 18, 2020

Sylvatic plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and transmitted by fleas, occurs in prairie dogs of the western United States. Outbreaks can devastate prairie dog communities, often causing nearly 100% mortality. Three competent flea vectors, prairie dog specialists Oropsylla hirsuta and O. tuberculata, and generalist Pulex simulans, are found on prairie dogs and in their burrows. Fleas are affected by climate, which varies across the range of black‐tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), but these effects may be ameliorated somewhat due to the burrowing habits of prairie dogs. Our goal was to assess how temperature and precipitation affect off‐host flea abundance and whether relative flea abundance varied across the range of black‐tailed prairie dogs. Flea abundance was measured by swabbing 300 prairie dog burrows at six widely distributed sites in early and late summer of 2016 and 2017. Relative abundance of flea species varied among sites and sampling sessions. Flea abundance and prevalence increased with monthly mean high temperature and declined with higher winter precipitation. Predicted climate change in North America will likely influence flea abundance and distribution, thereby impacting plague dynamics in prairie dog colonies.

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