Behavioral Heterogeneity and Disease Dynamics in House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)

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Virginia Tech

Infectious disease is a ubiquitous aspect of life on earth; however, parasites and pathogens are not distributed equally among individual hosts. Due to its ability to shape the way that individuals interact with other potential hosts and the environment, behavior is one of the most salient ways through which host biology varies in the context of disease. Variation in animal behavior can impact both transmission and the extent of a host's pathogen acquisition, and thus can have important consequences for infectious disease dynamics. Additionally, in this world of rapid urbanization where landscapes and wildlife resources are being altered, it is important to understand the ways in which human activity impact wildlife behavior, and in turn, disease dynamics. Here, we used both observational and experimental studies in field and laboratory settings to investigate the relationships among host behavior and physiology, anthropogenic food sources, and disease transmission in a natural host-pathogen system. First, we examined the relationship between house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) stress physiology, exploratory behaviors, and social behaviors in the wild. We provided evidence that more exploratory house finches interact with more individuals in the wild, and have higher baseline concentrations of circulating stress hormones. Next, we found evidence that the amount of time spent on bird feeders drives both the acquisition and transmission of the bacterial pathogen Mycoplasma gallisepticum (Mg), indicating that variation in host foraging behavior has important transmission consequences in this system. Lastly, we found that the density of bird feeders available to house finches predicts the extent of Mg transmission in captivity. Taken together, these results highlight the important role that behavioral heterogeneity can play in the acquisition and spread of pathogens, as well as the potential impacts of human behavior on wildlife disease dynamics. Future work should seek to identify specific physiological mechanisms driving Mg acquisition and transmission as they relate to variation in host behavior, and the ways in which bird feeders impact disease-relevant behaviors in the wild.

House finch, Haemorhous mexicanus, mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, Mycoplasma gallisepticum, behavioral heterogeneity, animal personality, disease acquisition, disease transmission