Resource-driven encounters among consumers and implications for the spread of infectious disease


Rebecca K. Borchering, Steve E. Bellan, Jason M. Flynn, Juliet R. C. Pulliam, Scott A. McKinley

Royal Society Interface

October 11, 2017


Animals share a variety of common resources, which can be a major driver of conspecific encounter rates. In this work, we implement a spatially explicit mathematical model for resource visitation behaviour in order to examine how changes in resource availability can influence the rate of encounters among consumers. Using simulations and asymptotic analysis, we demonstrate that, under a reasonable set of assumptions, the relationship between resource availability and consumer conspecific encounters is not monotonic. We characterize how the maximum encounter rate and associated critical resource density depend on system parameters like consumer density and the maximum distance from which consumers can detect and respond to resources. The assumptions underlying our theoretical model and analysis are motivated by observations of large aggregations of black-backed jackals at carcasses generated by seasonal outbreaks of anthrax among herbivores in Etosha National Park, Namibia. As non-obligate scavengers, black-backed jackals use carcasses as a supplemental food resource when they are available. While jackals do not appear to acquire disease from ingesting anthrax carcasses, changes in their movement patterns in response to changes in carcass abundance do alter jackals' conspecific encounter rate in ways that may affect the transmission dynamics of other diseases, such as rabies. Our theoretical results provide a method to quantify and analyse the hypothesis that the outbreak of a fatal disease among herbivores can potentially facilitate outbreaks of an entirely different disease among jackals. By analysing carcass visitation data, we find support for our model's prediction that the number of conspecific encounters at resource sites decreases with additional increases in resource availability. Whether or not this site-dependent effect translates to an overall decrease in encounters depends, unexpectedly, on the relationship between the maximum distance of detection and the resource density.