Soil ingestion, nutrition and the seasonality of anthrax in herbivores of Etosha National Park

Authors

  • Wendy C. Turner,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, University of California, Berkeley, 137 Mulford Hall, Berkeley, California 94720-3112 USA
    2. Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis, Department of Biology, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1066, Blindern, 0361 Oslo, Norway
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  • Peace Imologhome,

    1. Department of Animal Science, Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Namibia, Private Bag 13301, Windhoek, Namibia
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  • Zepee Havarua,

    1. Department of Animal Science, Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Namibia, Private Bag 13301, Windhoek, Namibia
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  • Godwin P. Kaaya,

    1. Department of Animal Science, Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Namibia, Private Bag 13301, Windhoek, Namibia
    2. University of Nairobi, School of Biological Sciences, P.O. Box 30197-00100, Nairobi, Kenya
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  • John K. E. Mfune,

    1. Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, University of Namibia, Private Bag 13301, Windhoek, Namibia
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  • Irvin D. T. Mpofu,

    1. Department of Animal Science, Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Namibia, Private Bag 13301, Windhoek, Namibia
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  • Wayne M. Getz

    1. Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, University of California, Berkeley, 137 Mulford Hall, Berkeley, California 94720-3112 USA
    2. School of Mathematical Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Private Bag X54001, Durban 4000 South Africa
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  • Corresponding Editor: D. P. C. Peters.

Abstract

Anthrax, caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, is a seasonally occurring infectious disease affecting primarily herbivorous wildlife and livestock. The seasonality of anthrax outbreaks varies among locations, making it difficult to develop a single consistent ecological description of this disease. Over 44 years of mortality surveillance, most anthrax cases in Etosha National Park, Namibia are observed in the wet season, although elephants have an anthrax mortality peak in the dry season. Focusing on three host species (plains zebra, Equus quagga; African elephant, Loxodonta africana; and springbok, Antidorcas marsupialis) occupying the endemic anthrax area of Etosha National Park, Namibia, we tested two commonly posited causes of anthrax seasonality in herbivores: increased pathogen exposure due to greater soil contact, and increased host susceptibility due to seasonal nutritional stress. These hypotheses were assessed using fecal sampling and measurement of the percentage of fecal silicates as an index of soil ingestion and fecal nitrogen, phosphorus and crude fiber as nutritional indices. Nutritional quality for all three species was higher in wet than dry seasons. Comparing among wet seasons, nutritional indices showed either a decline in nutrition with increasing rainfall or no significant pattern. All three species had greater soil ingestion in the wet season than the dry season. Higher soil contact during the anthrax peak suggests that anthrax seasonality may in part be due to heightened exposure to B. anthracis in wet seasons, for zebra and springbok. Elephant anthrax deaths do not correspond with the season of increased soil ingestion or grazing, suggesting that other behavioral mechanisms may overshadow foraging-based risk factors for this species. Nutritional stress is unlikely the primary causative factor in wet season anthrax systems, although nutritional stress sufficient to reduce resistance is difficult to assess non-invasively in wild herbivores. In contrast, increased soil ingestion may be an important predisposing factor for wet season anthrax outbreaks. Ultimately, the amount of soil ingested and its importance in the transmission of soil-borne pathogens will vary based on foraging behaviors, intake rates, grassland structure and on the likelihood that foraging areas intersect with pathogen aggregations in the environment.

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