Transmission dynamics of Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease may lead to disease-induced extinction.
McCallum H., Jones M., Hawkins C., Hamede R., Lachish S., Sinn DL., Beeton N., Lazenby B.
Most pathogens threatening to cause extinction of a host species are maintained on one or more reservoir hosts, in addition to the species that is threatened by disease. Further, most conventional host-pathogen theory assumes that transmission is related to host density, and therefore a pathogen should become extinct before its sole host. Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease is a recently emerged infectious cancer that has led to massive population declines and grave concerns for the future persistence of this largest surviving marsupial carnivore. Here we report the results of mark-recapture studies at six sites and use these data to estimate epidemiological parameters critical to both accurately assessing the risk of extinction from this disease and effectively managing this disease threat. Three sites were monitored from before or close to the time of disease arrival, and at three others disease was well established when trapping began, in one site for at least 10 years. We found no evidence for sex-specific differences in disease prevalence and little evidence of consistent seasonal variation in the force of infection. At all sites, the disease was maintained at high levels of prevalence (>50% in 2-3-year-old animals), despite causing major population declines. We also provide the first estimates of the basic reproductive rate R0 for this disease. Using a simple age-structured deterministic model, we show that our results are not consistent with transmission being proportional to the density of infected hosts but are consistent with frequency-dependent transmission. This conclusion is further supported by the observation that local disease prevalence in 2-3-year-olds still exceeds 50% at a site where population density has been reduced by up to 90% in the past 12 years. These findings lend considerable weight to concerns that this host-specific pathogen will cause the extinction of the Tasmanian devil. Our study highlights the importance of rapidly implementing monitoring programs to determine how transmission depends on host density and emphasizes the need for ongoing management strategies involving a disease-free "insurance population," along with ongoing field monitoring programs to confirm whether local population extinction occurs.