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Disease transmission in territorial populations: the small-world network of Serengeti lions.

Abstract

Territoriality in animal populations creates spatial structure that is thought to naturally buffer disease invasion. Often, however, territorial populations also include highly mobile, non-residential individuals that potentially serve as disease superspreaders. Using long-term data from the Serengeti Lion Project, we characterize the contact network structure of a territorial wildlife population and address the epidemiological impact of nomadic individuals. As expected, pride contacts are dominated by interactions with neighbouring prides and interspersed by encounters with nomads as they wander throughout the ecosystem. Yet the pride-pride network also includes occasional long-range contacts between prides, making it surprisingly small world and vulnerable to epidemics, even without nomads. While nomads increase both the local and global connectivity of the network, their epidemiological impact is marginal, particularly for diseases with short infectious periods like canine distemper virus. Thus, territoriality in Serengeti lions may be less protective and non-residents less important for disease transmission than previously considered.

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