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Black Death Among Prairie Dogs Could Change the Midwest

Apr 13, 2015 04:10 PM EDT
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Plague: Fleas in Two Arizona Counties are Carrying Bubonic Plague

It's a little known fact that the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, never truly left the world. Even in the New World, the plague continues to circulate among fleas and their hosts. Surprisingly, past surveys have revealed that in the United States, Black Death is most prevalent in colonies of black tailed prairie dogs. Now new research is saying that as the plague continues to creep through US grasslands, it could radically change the ecosystem.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Conservation Biology, which details how the plague bacteria Yersinia pestis could be what's behind a slow, but notable decline in western US prairie dog populations.

"Y. pestis transforms grassland ecosystems by severely depleting the abundance of prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) and thereby causing declines in native species abundance and diversity," the study authors wrote. Some changes investigated include "threatened and endangered species; altering food web connections; altering the import and export of nutrients; causing a loss of ecosystem resilience to encroaching invasive plants; and modifying prairie dog burrows."

What's more, the plague isn't the only thing prairie dogs have to worry about. US plains lands in general are shrinking - either becoming turned over for agriculture or being torn up for development.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reports that North America's black tailed prairie dog lost a stunning 37 percent of available habitat to development and fragmentation around the turn of the century alone. This has left many of the tiny mammals homeless, even while those that remain in the wild live in more confined habitats where the plague could be more easily spread.

However, it's also important to note that, as of 2004 when the US Fish and Wildlife Service conducted an extensive survey, it is estimated that just under 18,420,000 black tailed prairie dogs remain in the world - a population size that by all standards means the animals are unthreatened by extinction.

Still, in an interview with New Scientist, study author David Eads stressed that if the plague is left to circulate among these animals at a growing rate, the relationship between prairie dogs, their predators, and local flora will quickly break down - resulting in a massive reformation of plains land ecosystems.

"If we can't control the problem [though flea-targeting insecticide or other means], the grasslands are probably going to be far different within the next 100 years," he concluded.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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