Heterospecific competitors and seasonality can affect host physiology and behavior: key factors in disease transmission

Andreas Eleftheriou, Amy J. Kuenzi, Angela D. Luis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Ecological and environmental factors can influence the transmission of infectious diseases. They can accomplish this via effects on host susceptibility and exposure to infection, which are governed by host physiology and behavior, respectively. To better inform disease control, more information is needed about how extrinsic factors affect physiological and behavioral processes that determine transmission. We investigated how heterospecific competitors and seasonality may influence host susceptibility and intraspecific contact rates using a directly transmitted disease system, the North American deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus)—Sin Nombre hantavirus (SNV) system. In grasslands of western Montana, USA, deer mice compete with dominant voles (Microtus spp.) and shrews (Sorex spp.) and experience a seasonal temperate climate. Higher SNV transmission occurs primarily during spring/summer, when changes in physiology and behavior may serve as influential contributors. We hypothesized that (1) voles, and to a lesser extent shrews, will induce chronic stress, suppress immunity, and may change contact rates of deer mice; and (2) during spring/summer, deer mice may experience chronic stress, suppressed immunity, and higher contact rates, which may help explain the reported seasonality in SNV transmission. Over two years, we trapped small mammals at four grids in western Montana. Deer mice were sampled for feces and blood and evaluated for scar numbers, demography, and body condition scores (BCSs). We evaluated stress physiology with fecal corticosterone metabolites (FCMs), neutrophil/lymphocyte (N/L) ratios and BCSs, immunity with white blood cell (WBC) counts, and contact rates with scar numbers. We found that shrew density was negatively associated with stress response FCMs, suggestive of chronic stress. Additionally, although complex interactions existed, shrew and vole densities were negatively associated with BCSs, but differentially with scar numbers. N/L ratios were higher in spring/summer, whereas WBC counts were lower in summer, suggestive of chronic stress and suppressed immunity, respectively. Our results suggest that (1) heterospecific competitors may differentially influence disease transmission via stress physiology and contact rates, and that (2) chronic stress, suppressed immunity, and higher contact rates may help explain why higher SNV transmission has been previously reported during spring/summer in Montana. Our findings may extend to other directly transmitted disease systems.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere03494
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • animal behavior
  • fecal glucocorticoid metabolites
  • generalized linear regression trees
  • rodent-borne zoonosis
  • wildlife infectious disease


Dive into the research topics of 'Heterospecific competitors and seasonality can affect host physiology and behavior: key factors in disease transmission'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this