By altering animal movements in their vicinity, habitat hotspots can thus strongly increase the spread of infectious diseases, even when disease transmission does not occur at the hotspot itself. Interestingly, when animals only visit the nearest hotspot, creating additional artificial hotspots, rather than reducing their number, may be an efficient disease control measure.
The spread of infectious diseases in wildlife populations is influenced by patterns of between-host contacts. Habitat "hotspots"--places attracting a large numbers of individuals or social groups--can significantly alter contact patterns and, hence, disease propagation. Research on the importance of habitat hotspots in wildlife epidemiology has primarily focused on how inter-individual contacts occurring at the hotspot itself increase disease transmission. However, in territorial animals, epidemiologically important contacts may primarily occur as animals cross through territories of conspecifics en route to habitat hotspots. So far, the phenomenon has received little attention. Here, we investigate the importance of these contacts in the case where infectious individuals keep visiting the hotspots and in the case where these individuals are not able to travel to the hotspot any more.
We developed a simulation epidemiological model to investigate both cases in a scenario when transmission at the hotspot does not occur. We find that (i) hotspots still exacerbate epidemics, (ii) when infectious individuals do not travel to the hotspot, the most vulnerable individuals are those residing at intermediate distances from the hotspot rather than nearby, and (iii) the epidemiological vulnerability of a population is the highest when the number of hotspots is intermediate.