Social systems and disease: Canine distemper in Yellowstone and the Serengeti

Recently I just got back from a really interesting meeting to link the disease work that Craig Packer, Meggan Craft and I have been doing as part of the Serengeti Lion Project to the Yellowstone Wolf Project. The meeting this time was in Yellowstone and it was a brilliant opportunity to see wolves in the wild (and the park in winter, see moose image below – my wolf photos weren’t great) . I now know much more about wolf biology and the effort taken to understand this charismatic species. Really a tremendous experience.

These two systems represent the most intensively studied social carnivore systems in the world and the opportunities to compare and contrast the disease ecology across systems is exciting. You wouldn’t necessarily think that the diseases infecting canids and felids would be similar, but in both systems one of the important pathogens is canine distemper virus (CDV). CDV can lead to serious reductions in numbers of both species, but perhaps due to the social organization,lions and wolves numerically recover quickly. CDV exposure , particularly for lions, is nasty and individuals can experience severe neurological symptoms.  It is unknown, however, if prides/packs impacted by CDV alter their interactions with other groups. This in turn could alter how diseases move around both landscapes by reducing inter group interactions for the years proceeding an outbreak. The hypothesis is that groups weakened by the disease are less likely to fight over territory and thus become more timid for a period post epeidemic. Our initial results show that this maybe the case for lions at least with the number of pride-pride contacts diminishing in the 4 year period after the epidemic. The lion population had largely recovered by then but the effects of CDV epidemics look like they linger. The plan is to now see if the same pattern can be found with the wolves and this could be the first compelling case for the power of epidemics to cause social disruption.

This collaboration was only really possible due to Pete Hudson, and I’m amazed that he was able to turn a conversation we had when he visited UMN last year into a collaboration that has the potential to understand sociality and disease in a new light.



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