Testing a key assumption of host-pathogen theory: Density and disease transmission

Amy L. Greer, Cheryl J. Briggs, James Collins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Conventional disease theory suggests that extinction with density-dependent transmission is unlikely as the threshold host density (KT) is greater than zero. Extinction may result if transmission is frequency dependent or the pathogen has an environmental reservoir. Given the importance of understanding how pathogens affect species richness and diversity there are few empirical tests of these conclusions. We used an Ambystoma tigrinum - Ambystoma tigrinum virus (ATV) model system in the laboratory to examine disease transmission dynamics. Susceptible A. tigrinum larvae were exposed to three different densities and proportions of infected larvae for 24 h. We then housed susceptible hosts individually for 28 days and monitored them for infection. The density of infected hosts to which susceptible hosts were exposed was the best predictor of infection (p=0.037). There was no effect of host clutch on the probability of becoming infected (p=0.67). Larvae in the highest density treatments died sooner than larvae in lower density treatments (p<0.001). Asymptomatic but infected hosts shed sufficient virus into the water in a 24-h period to infect susceptible hosts without any direct contact between individuals. ATV transmission was best described by a power function, leading to the prediction that extinction of A. tigrinum as a result of this pathogen is unlikely. Indeed, field observations show that larval salamander populations that experience ATV-driven epidemics may decrease, but not to extinction, and then recover. Disease is proposed as a possible explanation for the global decline of amphibians. Ranaviruses infect many amphibian populations, but based on our results may not be a general cause of declines to extinction. In contrast, frequency dependent transmission, environmental reservoirs and alternative hosts may be the most likely explanation for the enigmatic decline, at times to extinction, of some amphibian populations as a result of emerging infectious diseases, like the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1667-1673
Number of pages7
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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