Numerous diseases of wildlife have recently emerged due to trade and travel. However, the impact of disease on wild animal populations has been notoriously difficult to detect and demonstrate, due to problems of attribution and the rapid disappearance of bodies after death. Determining the magnitude of avian mortality from West Nile virus (WNV) is emblematic of these challenges. Although correlational analyses have shown population declines coincident with the arrival of the virus, strong inference of WNV as a cause of mortality or a population decline requires additional evidence. We show how integrating field data on mosquito feeding patterns, avian abundance, and seroprevalence can be used to predict relative mortality from vector-borne pathogens. We illustrate the method with a case study on WNV in three species of small songbirds, tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), and northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis). We then determined mortality, infectiousness, and behavioral response of wrens and titmouse following infection with WNV in laboratory experiments and compared them to a previous study on WNV mortality in cardinals. In agreement with predictions, we found titmouse had the highest mortality from WNV infection, with 100% of 11 birds perishing within 7. days after infection. Mortality in wrens was significantly lower at 27% (3/11), but still substantial. Viremia profiles indicated that both species were highly infectious for WNV and could play roles in WNV amplification. These findings suggest that WNV may be killing many small-bodied birds, despite the absence of large numbers of dead birds being observed and testing positive for WNV. More broadly, they illustrate the utility of a framework for predicting relative mortality in hosts from vector-borne disease.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Nature and Landscape Conservation