Environmental Persistence Influences Infection Dynamics for a Butterfly Pathogen

PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases


Many pathogens, including those infecting insects, are transmitted via dormant stages shed into the environment, where they must persist until encountering a susceptible host. Understanding how abiotic conditions influence environmental persistence and how these factors influence pathogen spread are crucial for predicting patterns of infection risk. Here, Richard Hall and Sonia Altzier explored the consequences of environmental transmission for infection dynamics of a debilitating protozoan parasite (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) that infects monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). They first conducted an experiment to observe the persistence of protozoan spores exposed to natural conditions. Experimental results showed that, contrary to their expectations, pathogen doses maintained high infectivity even after 16 days in the environment, although pathogens did yield infections with lower parasite loads after environmental exposure. Because pathogen longevity exceeded the time span of our experiment, they developed a mechanistic model to better explore environmental persistence for this host-pathogen system. Model analysis showed that, in general, longer spore persistence led to higher infection prevalence and slightly smaller monarch population sizes. The model indicated that typical parasite doses shed onto milkweed plants must remain viable for a minimum of 3 weeks for prevalence to increase during the summer-breeding season, and for 11 weeks or longer to match levels of infection commonly reported from the wild, assuming moderate values for parasite shedding rate. Their findings showed that transmission stages of this butterfly pathogen are long-lived and indicated that this is a necessary condition for the protozoan to persist in local monarch populations. This study provides a modeling framework for future work examining the dynamics of an ecologically important pathogen in an iconic insect.