The absence of concordant population genetic structure in the black-tailed prairie dog and the flea, Oropsylla hirsuta, with implications for the spread of Yersinia pestis


Philip H. Jones, Fax: +1 605 677 6557; E-mail:


The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) is a keystone species on the mid- and short-grass prairies of North America. The species has suffered extensive colony extirpations and isolation as a result of human activity including the introduction of an exotic pathogen, Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of sylvatic plague. The prairie dog flea, Oropsylla hirsuta, is the most common flea on our study colonies in north-central Montana and it has been shown to carry Y. pestis. We used microsatellite markers to estimate the level of population genetic concordance between black-tailed prairie dogs and O. hirsuta in order to determine the extent to which prairie dogs are responsible for dispersing this potential plague vector among prairie dog colonies. We sampled fleas and prairie dogs from six prairie dog colonies in two regions separated by about 46 km. These colonies were extirpated by a plague epizootic that began months after our sampling was completed in 2005. Prairie dogs showed significant isolation-by-distance and a tendency toward genetic structure on the regional scale that the fleas did not. Fleas exhibited higher estimated rates of gene flow among prairie dog colonies than the prairie dogs sampled from the same colonies. While the findings suggested black-tailed prairie dogs may have contributed to flea dispersal, we attributed the lack of concordance between the population genetic structures of host and ectoparasite to additional flea dispersal that was mediated by mammals other than prairie dogs that were present in the prairie system.