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Sex, friends, and disease: social ecology of elk (Cervus elaphus) with implications for pathogen transmission



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Many mammals are social. The most basic social behaviour is when the actions of one conspecific are directed toward another, what we call the ‘dyadic interaction’. Both intrinsic and extrinsic factors may affect an individual’s propensity to interact with other members of a population. I used a social cervid, elk (Cervus elaphus), as a model species to test the importance of intrinsic and extrinsic factors of sociality on dyadic interactions. Dyadic interactions not only form the basis for social structure and information transfer within a population, but are also routes of pathogen transmission. My objective in this thesis was thus twofold: to improve our understanding of sociobiology, but also to gain insight into how sociality may underlie the transmission of communicable wildlife disease. I used a hierarchical, autecological approach from DNA, through individual, dyad, group, subpopulation, and ultimately population to explore the effects of intrinsic factors (e.g., sex and pairwise genetic relatedness) and extrinsic factors (e.g., season, conspecific density, habitat, and elk group size) on sociality. Elk in Riding Mountain National Park (RMNP), Manitoba, Canada, are exposed to the causal agent of bovine tuberculosis (Mycobacterium bovis; TB); however, spatial variation in apparent disease prevalence suggests that TB can only persist in one subpopulation within the Park. Using the natural RMNP system and a captive elk herd that I manipulated, I explored factors that influence interaction rates and durations (as a proxy for pathogen transmission) among elk. Sexual segregation in elk results in seasonal and sex-based differences in interaction rate and duration; with interactions peaking in autumn-winter for both sexes. Female-female dyads interact more frequently than male-male dyads. However, male-male dyads interact for longer durations than do female-female dyads. Interaction rate and duration did not covary with pairwise relatedness. Conspecific density also had sex-specific results for interaction rate and duration. Whereas male-male dyadic interaction rates increase with density, female-female dyads increase until they reach a threshold and subsequently reduce their interaction rates at high density. I observed density dependence in interaction rates in experimental trials and from field data. Furthermore, social networks revealed that social familiarity (i.e., heterogeneity of interactions) can be both frequency- and- density dependent depending on the strength of the relationship (i.e., number of repeat interactions). Density also affected the likelihood that an interaction would occur; however, this was modified by vegetation association used by elk. My results reveal several ecological and evolutionary implications for information transfer and pathogen transmission. In particular, I show that seasonal inter-sex routes of transfer may exist and that transfer is likely to be density-dependent. Finally, I conclude that such transfer is modified by available resources.



Spatial scale, Sexual segregation, Social network analysis, Sociality, Pathogen transmission, Riding Mountain National Park, Relatedness, Behaviour, Bovine tuberculosis, Habitat, Information flow, Interaction rate, Isocline, Cervus elaphus, Mycobacterium bovis, Landscape genetics, Wildlife management, Group size, Frequency dependence, Density dependence, Disease, Elk



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)






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