American Society of Naturalists

A membership society whose goal is to advance and to diffuse knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles so as to enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

“Stochasticity and infectious-disease dynamics: Density and weather effects on a fungal insect pathogen”

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Colin H. Kyle, Jiawei Liu, Molly E. Gallagher, Vanja Dukic, and Greg Dwyer (Mar 2020)

Models plus data reveal strong effects of weather and density on the spread of a disease that controls the gypsy moth

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In deterministic models of epidemics, there is a host abundance threshold, above which the introduction of a few infected individuals leads to a severe epidemic. Studies of weather driven animal pathogens often assume that abundance thresholds will be overwhelmed by weather driven stochasticity, but tests of this assumption are lacking. We collected observational and experimental data for a fungal pathogen, Entomophaga maimaiga, that infects the gypsy moth, Lymantria dispar. We used an advanced statistical-computing algorithm to fit mechanistic models to our data, such that different models made different assumptions about the effects of host density and weather on E. maimaiga epizootics (epidemics in animals). We then used AIC analysis to choose the best model. In the best model, epizootics are driven by a combination of weather and host density, and the model does an excellent job of explaining the data, whereas models that allow only for weather effects, or only density-dependence effects, do a poor job of explaining the data. Density-dependent transmission in our best model produces a host-density threshold, but this threshold is strongly blurred by the stochastic effects of weather. Our work shows that host-abundance thresholds may be important even if weather strongly affects transmission, suggesting that epidemiological models that allow for weather have an important role to play in understanding animal pathogens. The success of our model means that it could be useful for managing the gypsy moth, an important pest of hardwood forests in North America.