Monarch butterfly migration and parasite transmission in eastern North America



Seasonal migration occurs in many animal systems and is likely to influence interactions between animals and their parasites. Here, we focus on monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and a protozoan parasite (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) to investigate how host migration affects infectious disease processes. Previous work showed that parasite prevalence was lower among migratory than nonmigratory monarch populations; two explanations for this pattern are that (1) migration allows animals to periodically escape contaminated habitats (i.e., migratory escape), and (2) long-distance migration weeds out infected animals (i.e., migratory culling). We combined field-sampling and analysis of citizen science data to examine spatiotemporal trends of parasite prevalence and evaluate evidence for these two mechanisms. Analysis of within-breeding-season variation in eastern North America showed that parasite prevalence increased from early to late in the breeding season, consistent with the hypothesis of migratory escape. Prevalence was also positively related to monarch breeding activity, as indexed by larval density. Among adult monarchs captured at different points along the east coast fall migratory flyway, parasite prevalence declined as monarchs progressed southward, consistent with the hypothesis of migratory culling. Parasite prevalence was also lower among monarchs sampled at two overwintering sites in Mexico than among monarchs sampled during the summer breeding period. Collectively, these results indicate that seasonal migration can affect parasite transmission in wild animal populations, with implications for predicting disease risks for species with threatened migrations.