Sylvatic plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is periodically responsible for large die-offs in rodent populations that can spillover and cause human mortalities. In the western US, prairie dog populations experience nearly 100% mortality during plague outbreaks, suggesting that multiple transmission pathways combine to amplify plague dynamics. Several alternate pathways in addition to flea vectors have been proposed, such as transmission via direct contact with bodily fluids or inhalation of infectious droplets, consumption of carcasses, and environmental sources of plague bacteria, such as contaminated soil. However, evidence supporting the ability of these proposed alternate pathways to trigger large-scale epizootics remains elusive. Here we present a short review of potential plague transmission pathways and use an ordinary differential equation model to assess the contribution of each pathway to resulting plague dynamics in black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) and their fleas (Oropsylla hirsuta). Using our model, we found little evidence to suggest that soil contamination was capable of producing plague epizootics in prairie dogs. However, in the absence of flea transmission, direct transmission, i.e., contact with bodily fluids or inhalation of infectious droplets, could produce enzootic dynamics, and transmission via contact with or consumption of carcasses could produce epizootics. This suggests that these pathways warrant further investigation.
- disease ecology