Behavioral determinants of parasite transmission in a monarch (Danaus plexippus) population

Anna Schneider, a student from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, worked with mentors Dr. Sonia Altizer, Dr. Richard Hall, and Ania Majewska to look at how butterfly behavior affects parasite transmission.

Abstract: Altered behavior of an infected host can have important consequences for pathogen transmission. Pathogens can cause the host to increase foraging behavior and decrease activity levels due to increased energetic demands, which can significantly change the spread of the pathogen. Monarchs can suffer from a debilitating protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), which is transmitted when infected adults inadvertently shed spores on milkweed (Asclepias spp.) leaves that are subsequently consumed by the caterpillars.  While infected adults are known to experience reduced flight ability and survival, less is known about how infection influences milkweed visitation behavior and, therefore, spore deposition.  Here, we investigated whether infection status altered activity budgets of wild adult Monarchs, particularly visitation rates to milkweed for foraging or oviposition.  Behavioral observations and milkweed visitation rates of adult Monarchs, both infected and uninfected, were collected in the butterfly gardens at the Wormsloe Historic Site in Savannah, GA.  Our results concluded that sex, not infection status, showed significance in variation of behavior.  Milkweed visitation rates were higher than previously thought and these are critical for parasite persistence.  These data provide the first field estimates of parasite spore deposition rates in monarchs.  We modified an existing differential equation model of monarch-OE dynamics to include adults contaminated with OE spores through mating and milkweed visitation.  According to this model, late-season OE prevalence varied between 16.5 and 78.6%.  This is consistent with the wide range of OE prevalence recorded in US monarchs (6-20% in the Midwest, up to 100% in tropical milkweed patches in the Southeast).

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