A mechanistic, stigmergy model of territory formation in solitary animals: Territorial behavior can dampen disease prevalence but increase persistence

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Jun 11, 2020
Lauren White, Sue VandeWoude, and Meggan E. Craft



Although movement ecology has leveraged models of home range formation to explore the effects of spatial heterogeneity and social cues on movement behavior, disease ecology has yet to integrate these potential drivers and mechanisms of contact behavior into a generalizable disease modeling framework. Here we ask how dynamic territory formation and maintenance might contribute to disease dynamics in a territorial, solitary predator for an indirectly transmitted pathogen. We developed a mechanistic individual-based model where stigmergy—the deposition of signals into the environment (e.g., scent marking, scraping)—dictates local movement choices and long-term territory formation, but also the risk of pathogen transmission. Based on a variable importance analysis, the length of the infectious period was the single most important variable in predicting outbreak success, maximum prevalence, and outbreak duration. Host density and rate of pathogen decay were also key predictors. We found that territoriality best reduced maximum prevalence in conditions where we would otherwise expect outbreaks to be most successful: slower recovery rates (i.e., longer infectious periods) and higher conspecific densities. However, for slower pathogen decay rates, stigmergy-driven movement increased outbreak durations relative to random movement simulations. Our findings therefore support a limited version of the “territoriality benefits” hypothesis—where reduced home range overlap leads to reduced opportunities for pathogen transmission, but with the caveat that reduction in outbreak severity may increase the likelihood of pathogen persistence. For longer infectious periods and higher host densities, key trade-offs emerged between the strength of pathogen load, the strength of the stigmergy cue, and the rate at which those two quantities decayed; this finding raises interesting questions about the evolutionary nature of these competing processes and the role of possible feedbacks between parasitism and territoriality. This work also highlights the importance of considering social cues as part of the movement landscape in order to better understand the consequences of individual behaviors on population level outcomes.

Read the article in PLOS Computational Biology.

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