Oral Presentation 64th International Conference of the Wildlife Disease Association 2015

A burning question – how does fire impact wildlife behavior and parasitism? (#53)

Krista Jones 1 , R.C. Andrew Thompson 1 , Chris Rafferty 2 , Stephanie Godfrey 1
  1. Murdoch University, Murdoch, WA, Australia
  2. Whiteman Park, Whiteman, WA, Australia

Fire can dramatically impact wildlife populations, including extensive mortality and morbidity.1-5 However, secondary effects, such as those on behavior and parasitism, are far less well understood;6-9 furthermore, the interaction of these two – how post-fire changes in movement and behavior affect parasitism – has rarely been studied. This project uses the critically endangered woylie (Bettongia penicillata) to investigate the impact of fire on animal movements and interactions, while simultaneously exploring shifts in parasitism. We expect:

1)      reduced parasitism by environmentally-transmitted parasites (e.g., ticks) due to proportionally higher use for foraging of low-parasite (burnt) areas

2)      increased parasitism by organisms transmitted via direct contact or asynchronous nest sharing (e.g., fleas, lice), as appropriate nest sites (limited to unburnt areas) become scarcer and sharing increases.

The study site is a fenced reserve in Western Australia, where an intense fire occurred in December 2014. Since the start of 2014, animals have been trapped seasonally, fitted with GPS collars (n=40), and sampled for gastrointestinal, external, and blood-borne parasites. Pre- vs. post-fire comparisons will include: kernel home and nest ranges; habitat use; weighted social networks exploring connections between individuals that reflect different transmission modes (e.g., overlapping home ranges, nest sharing);10 and parasite prevalences with 95% Jeffrey’s confidence intervals. Preliminary pre-fire results indicate variable parasite prevalences, ranging from 0% (0-4.34%) for fleas to 64.86% (48.83-78.67%) for lice. Other results are pending; changes in parasitism and movement patterns in the first five months after the fire will be detailed. Understanding how fire impacts wildlife behavior and parasitism can aid conservationists in determining appropriate fire management and response schemes; it is particularly relevant for the woylie, as parasites have been implicated in the species’ dramatic decline and fire is a regular feature of their environment. This study will also demonstrate the utility of social networks in wildlife epidemiology.

  1. Banks, S.C., E.J. Knight, L. McBurney, D. Blair, and D.B. Lindenmayer. 2011. The effects of wildfire on mortality and resources for an arboreal marsupial: Resilience to fire events but susceptibility to fire regime change. PLoS ONE 6: e22952.
  2. Zwolak, R. 2009. A meta-analysis of the effects of wildfire, clearcutting, and partial harvest on the abundance of North American small mammals. Forest Ecology and Management 258: 539-545.
  3. Fontaine, J.B., and P.L. Kennedy. 2012. Meta-analysis of avian and small-mammal response to fire severity and fire surrogate treatments in U.S. fire-prone forests. Ecological Applications 22: 1547-1561.
  4. Kelly, L.T., D.G. Nimmo, L.M. Spence-Bailey, M.F. Clarke, and A.F. Bennett. 2010. The short-term responses of small mammals to wildfire in semiarid mallee shrubland, Australia. Wildlife Research 37: 293-300.
  5. Griffiths, A.D., and B.W. Brook. 2014. Effect of fire on small mammals: a systematic review. International Journal of Wildland Fire 23: 1034-1043.
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  7. Murphy, S.A., S.M. Legge, J. Heathcote, and E. Mulder. 2010. The effects of early and late-season fires on mortality, dispersal, physiology and breeding of red-backed fairy-wrens (Malurus melanocephalus). Wildlife Research 37: 145-155.
  8. Vernes, K., and L.C. Pope. 2001. Stability of nest range, home range and movement of the northern bettong (Bettongia tropica) following moderate-intensity fire in a tropical woodland, north-eastern Queensland. Wildlife Research 28: 141-150.
  9. Zwolak, R., S. Meagher, J.W. Vaughn, S. Dziemian, and E.E. Crone. 2013. Reduced ectoparasite loads of deer mice in burned forest: From fleas to trees? Ecosphere 4: art 132.
  10. Croft, D.P., R. James, and J. Krause. 2008. Exploring animal social networks. Princeton University Press.