Biological control agents elevate hantavirus by subsidizing deer mouse populations


Correspondence and present address: Dean E. Pearson, Rocky Mountain Research Station, USDA Forest Service, 800 E. Beckwith Ave., Missoula, MT 59801, USA. E-mail:


Biological control of exotic invasive plants using exotic insects is practiced under the assumption that biological control agents are safe if they do not directly attack non-target species. We tested this assumption by evaluating the potential for two host-specific biological control agents (Urophora spp.), widely established in North America for spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) control, to indirectly elevate Sin Nombre hantavirus by providing food subsidies to populations of deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus), the primary reservoir for the virus. We show that seropositive deer mice (mice testing positive for hantavirus) were over three times more abundant in the presence of the biocontrol food subsidy. Elevating densities of seropositive mice may increase risk of hantavirus infection in humans and significantly alter hantavirus ecology. Host specificity alone does not ensure safe biological control. To minimize indirect risks to non-target species, biological control agents must suppress pest populations enough to reduce their own numbers.