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Social behavior drives the dynamics of respiratory disease in threatened tortoises


  • Corresponding Editor: D. M. Tompkins.


Since the early 1990s, morbidity and mortality in tortoise populations have been associated with a transmissible, mycoplasmal upper respiratory tract disease (URTD). Although the etiology, transmission, and diagnosis of URTD have been extensively studied, little is known about the dynamics of disease transmission in free-ranging tortoise populations. To understand the transmission dynamics of Mycoplasma agassizii, the primary etiological agent of URTD in wild tortoise populations, we studied 11 populations of free-ranging gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus; n = 1667 individuals) over five years and determined their exposure to the pathogen by serology, by clinical signs, and by detection of the pathogen in nasal lavages. Adults tortoises (n = 759) were 11 times more likely to be seropositive than immature animals (n = 242) (odds ratio = 10.6, 95% CI = 5.7–20, P < 0.0001). Nasal discharge was observed in only 1.4% (4/296) of immature tortoises as compared with 8.6% (120/1399) of adult tortoises. Nasal lavages from all juvenile tortoises (n = 283) were negative by PCR for mycoplasmal pathogens associated with URTD. We tested for spatial segregation among tortoise burrows by size class and found no consistent evidence of clustering of either juveniles or adults. We suggest that the social behavior of tortoises plays a critical role in the spread of URTD in wild populations, with immature tortoises having minimal interactions with adult tortoises, thereby limiting their exposure to the pathogen. These findings may have broader implications for modeling horizontally transmitted diseases in other species with limited parental care and emphasize the importance of incorporating animal behavior parameters into disease transmission studies to better characterize the host–pathogen dynamics.

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