Linking spring phenology with mechanistic models of host movement to predict disease transmission risk.

Published online
02 May 2018
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Merkle, J. A. & Cross, P. C. & Scurlock, B. M. & Cole, E. K. & Courtemanch, A. B. & Dewey, S. R. & Kauffman, M. J.
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Disease models typically focus on temporal dynamics of infection, while often neglecting environmental processes that determine host movement. In many systems, however, temporal disease dynamics may be slow compared to the scale at which environmental conditions alter host space-use and accelerate disease transmission. Using a mechanistic movement modelling approach, we made space-use predictions of a mobile host (elk [Cervus Canadensis] carrying the bacterial disease brucellosis) under environmental conditions that change daily and annually (e.g., plant phenology, snow depth), and we used these predictions to infer how spring phenology influences the risk of brucellosis transmission from elk (through aborted foetuses) to livestock in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Using data from 288 female elk monitored with GPS collars, we fit step selection functions (SSFs) during the spring abortion season and then implemented a master equation approach to translate SSFs into predictions of daily elk distribution for five plausible winter weather scenarios (from a heavy snow, to an extreme winter drought year). We predicted abortion events by combining elk distributions with empirical estimates of daily abortion rates, spatially varying elk seroprevelance and elk population counts. Our results reveal strong spatial variation in disease transmission risk at daily and annual scales that is strongly governed by variation in host movement in response to spring phenology. For example, in comparison with an average snow year, years with early snowmelt are predicted to have 64% of the abortions occurring on feedgrounds shift to occurring on mainly public lands, and to a lesser extent on private lands. Synthesis and applications. Linking mechanistic models of host movement with disease dynamics leads to a novel bridge between movement and disease ecology. Our analysis framework offers new avenues for predicting disease spread, while providing managers tools to proactively mitigate risks posed by mobile disease hosts. More broadly, we demonstrate how mechanistic movement models can provide predictions of ecological conditions that are consistent with climate change but may be more extreme than has been observed historically.

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