Upper respiratory tract disease, force of infection, and effects on survival of gopher tortoises Academic Article uri icon

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abstract

  • Upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) caused by Mycoplasma agassizii has been hypothesized to contribute to the decline of some wild populations of gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus). However, the force of infection (FOI) and the effect of URTD on survival in free-ranging tortoise populations remain unknown. Using four years (2003-2006) of mark-recapture and epidemiological data collected from 10 populations of gopher tortoises in central Florida, USA, we estimated the FOI (probability per year of a susceptible tortoise becoming infected) and the effect of URTD (i.e., seropositivity to M. agassizii) on apparent survival rates. Sites with high (> or = 25%) seroprevalence had substantially higher FOI (0.22 +/- 0.03; mean +/- SE) than low (< 25%) seroprevalence sites (0.04 +/- 0.01). Our results provide the first quantitative evidence that the rate of transmission of M. agassizii is directly related to the seroprevalence of the population. Seropositive tortoises had higher apparent survival (0.99 +/- 0.0001) than seronegatives (0.88 +/- 0.03), possibly because seropositive tortoises represent individuals that survived the initial infection, developed chronic disease, and experienced lower mortality during the four-year span of our study. However, two lines of evidence suggested possible effects of mycoplasmal URTD on tortoise survival. First, one plausible model suggested that susceptible (seronegative) tortoises in high seroprevalence sites had lower apparent survival rates than did susceptible tortoises in low seroprevalence sites, indicating a possible acute effect of infection. Second, the number of dead tortoise remains detected during annual site surveys increased significantly with increasing site seroprevalence, from approximately 1 to approximately 5 shell remains per 100 individuals. If (as our results suggest) URTD in fact reduces adult survival, it could adversely influence the population dynamics and persistence of this late- maturing, long-lived species.

publication date

  • April 2009