Modelling the spatial dynamics of parapoxvirus disease in red and grey squirrels: a possible cause of the decline in the red squirrel in the UK?


Dr Steve Rushton (e-mail


1.  A stochastic individual-based model for simulating the dynamics of an infectious disease in sympatric red and grey squirrel populations is described. The model simulates the spread of parapoxvirus between squirrels in fragmented populations based on the dispersal of infected animals, the probability of encounters between individuals, exposure to the virus and subsequent mortality.

2.  The disease model was integrated with a spatially explicit population dynamics model that simulated red and grey squirrel populations in real landscapes, using habitat information held in a geographical information system. Latin hypercube sampling was used to create a range of realistic life-history and infection scenarios and the model was used to investigate the dynamics of red and grey squirrels in Norfolk between 1966 and 1980.

3.  The model predicted that parapoxvirus, like interspecific competition, could have led to the extinction of the red squirrel in Norfolk. The results suggest that the red squirrel–grey squirrel–parapoxvirus interaction represents a system of apparent competition mediated by an infectious agent, as seen in other interactions between resident and exotic species.

4.  The need for further epidemiological research on the virus is emphasized. We believe that the combined effects on disease transmission of habitat, behaviour and grey squirrels acting as reservoir hosts will lead to a patchy prevalence and sporadic incidence of parapoxvirus disease in red squirrels and a more rapid local replacement by grey squirrels.

5.  These results have implications for conservation management of the red squirrel in the UK. Schemes in which animals are translocated or given supplementary feeding may enhance disease spread by bringing infected animals into contact with others.