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Linking disease and community ecology through behavioural indicators: immunochallenge of white-footed mice and its ecological impacts.

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1. Pathogens and immune challenges can induce changes in host phenotype in ways that indirectly impact important community interactions, including those that affect host-pathogen interactions. 2. To explore host behavioural response to immune challenge, we exposed wild white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) to an immunogen from an endemic, zoonotic pathogen, the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi. White-footed mice are a major reservoir host of
Lyme disease (LD) spirochetes in northeastern USA and an abundant member of forest communities. The activity patterns, foraging behaviour, and space use of white-footed mice have implications for population growth rates of community members upon which mice incidentally prey (i.e. gypsy moths and native thrushes), as well as potentially determining host-vector encounter rates and human risk of LD. 3. Immunochallenge led to specific humoral (antibody) and cellular (i.e. elevated neutrophils and eosinophils) immune responses, supporting use of the immunogen as a surrogate for pathogenic infection. 4. Immunochallenged mice had reduced wheel-running activity early in the night when measured in the lab. However, mouse activity, as measured by track plates in natural field experiments, did not differ between mice exposed to the immunogen and unexposed mice. 5. Foraging behaviour of wild mice in the field – assessed with giving-up densities of seed at artificial feeding stations – was affected by exposure to the immunogen. Whereas immunochallenge did not influence whether foraging mice gained information on patch quality while foraging, it led to reductions in predator avoidance during foraging, suggesting that the proportion of space used by foraging mice may be greater as a result of immunochallenge. This increased space use is predicted to increase encounter rates with patchily distributed LD vectors (ticks) and with incidental prey items. 6. Thus, immunochallenge in white-footed mice, and potentially pathogenic infection, have the potential to indirectly impact community interactions, including those important for pathogen transmission.

© 2010 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2010 British Ecological Society.

J Anim Ecol. 2011 Jan;80(1):204-14. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2656.2010.01745.x. Epub 2010 Aug 26.

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