Assessing spatial patterns of disease risk to biodiversity: implications for the management of the amphibian pathogen, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis.
Emerging infectious diseases can have serious consequences for wildlife populations, ecosystem structure and biodiversity. Predicting the spatial patterns and potential impacts of diseases in free-ranging wildlife are therefore important for planning, prioritizing and implementing research and management actions. We developed spatial models of environmental suitability (ES) for infection with the pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which causes the most significant disease affecting vertebrate biodiversity on record, amphibian chytridiomycosis. We applied relatively newly developed methods for modelling ES (Maxent) to the first comprehensive, continent-wide data base (comprising >10000 observations) on the occurrence of infection with this pathogen and employed novel methodologies to deal with common but rarely addressed sources of model uncertainty. We used ES to (i) predict the minimum potential geographic distribution of infection with B. dendrobatidis in Australia and (ii) test the hypothesis that ES for B. dendrobatidis should help explain patterns of amphibian decline given its theoretical and empirical link with organism abundance (intensity of infection), a known determinant of disease severity. We show that (i) infection with B. dendrobatidis has probably reached its broad geographic limits in Australia under current climatic conditions but that smaller areas of invasion potential remain, (ii) areas of high predicted ES for B. dendrobatidis accurately reflect areas where population declines due to severe chytridiomycosis have occurred and (iii) that a host-specific metric of ES for B. dendrobatidis (ES for Bdspecies) is the strongest predictor of decline in Australian amphibians at a continental scale yet discovered. Synthesis and applications. Our results provide quantitative information that helps to explain both the spatial distribution and potential effects (risk) of amphibian infection with B. dendrobatidis at the population level. Given scarce conservation resources, our results can be used immediately in Australia and our methods applied elsewhere to prioritize species, regions and actions in the struggle to limit further biodiversity loss.