1. 1 U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, Madison, Wisconsin.
2. 2 Department of Pathobiological Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Veterinary Medicine, Madison, Wisconsin.
3. 3 Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Laramie, Wyoming.
Plague is a lethal zoonotic disease associated with rodents worldwide. In the western United States, plague outbreaks can decimate prairie dog (Cynomys spp.) colonies. However, it is unclear where the causative agent, Yersinia pestis, of this flea-borne disease is maintained between outbreaks, and what triggers plague-induced prairie dog die-offs. Less susceptible rodent hosts, such as mice, could serve to maintain the bacterium, transport infectious fleas across a colony, or introduce the pathogen to other colonies, possibly facilitating an outbreak. Here, we assess the potential role of two short-lived rodent species, North American deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) and Northern grasshopper mice (Onychomys leucogaster) in plague dynamics on prairie dog colonies. We live-trapped short-lived rodents and collected their fleas on black-tailed (Cynomys ludovicianus, Montana and South Dakota), white-tailed (Cynomys leucurus, Utah and Wyoming), and Utah prairie dog colonies (Cynomys parvidens, Utah) annually, from 2013 to 2016. Plague outbreaks occurred on colonies of all three species. In all study areas, deer mouse abundance was high the year before plague-induced prairie dog die-offs, but mouse abundance per colony was not predictive of plague die-offs in prairie dogs. We did not detect Y. pestis DNA in mouse fleas during prairie dog die-offs, but in three cases we found it beforehand. On one white-tailed prairie dog colony, we detected Y. pestis positive fleas on one grasshopper mouse and several prairie dogs live-trapped 10 days later, months before visible declines and plague-confirmed mortality of prairie dogs. On one black-tailed prairie dog colony, we detected Y. pestis positive fleas on two deer mice 3 months before evidence of plague was detected in prairie dogs or their fleas and also well before a plague-induced die-off. These observations of plague positive fleas on mice could represent early spillover events of Y. pestis from prairie dogs or an unknown reservoir, or possible movement of infectious fleas by mice.