A number of other deadly human diseases like hantavirus, Ebola and anthrax show the same pattern of decimating communities, disappearing and coming back years later, said Daniel Salkeld, a Stanford postdoctoral scholar and lead author of the study.
"A key element to their control and eradication is understanding where they persist in the latent phase and identifying the conditions that result in sporadic epidemics," Salkeld said.
The research team focused on black-tailed prairie dogs, one of five prairie dog species whose populations have dwindled over the past century because of habitat destruction, extermination and plague.
Tracking infectious diseases in prairie dogs is challenging. The burrowing rodents live in complex underground communities largely hidden from view.
"Prairie dogs are highly social ground squirrels that occupy colonies, or towns, which can extend for 500 acres and comprise 5,000 individuals or more," Salkeld said. "While the town provides a defense against predators, individual prairie dogs are highly territorial."
Prairie dogs live in small family groups, known as coteries, which they defend vigorously. A large prairie dog town may have 1,000 coteries. Together, they form a grid of small, isolated territories within the town, Jones added.
"The coteries are spread out almost lattice-like," he said. "That has implications for infectious disease transmission. Each coterie has only a few neighbors. Because prairie dogs don't venture outside their territories, they can only infect their immediate neighbors. This territoriality limits the rate of disease propagation through the prairie dog town."
Little mouse on the prairie
Plague is not transmitted dir
|Contact: Mark Shwartz|