The ecology of wildlife disease surveillance: demographic and prevalence fluctuations undermine surveillance

L Walton, G Marion, RS Davidson, PCL White, LA Smith, D Gavier-Widen, L Yon, D Hannant, MR Hutchings

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1.Wildlife disease surveillance is the first line of defence against infectious disease. Fluctuations in host populations and disease prevalence are a known feature of wildlife disease systems. However, the impact of such heterogeneities on the performance of surveillance is currently poorly understood. 2.We present the first systematic exploration of the effects of fluctuations' prevalence and host population size on the efficacy of wildlife disease surveillance systems. In this study, efficacy is measured in terms of ability to estimate long-term prevalence and detect disease risk. 3.Our results suggest that for many wildlife disease systems, fluctuations in population size and disease lead to bias in surveillance-based estimates of prevalence and overconfidence in assessments of both the precision of prevalence estimates and the power to detect disease. 4.Neglecting such ecological effects may lead to poorly designed surveillance and ultimately to incorrect assessments of the risks posed by disease in wildlife. This will be most problematic in systems where prevalence fluctuations are large and disease fade-outs occur. Such fluctuations are determined by the interaction of demography and disease dynamics. Although particularly likely in highly fluctuating populations typical of fecund short-lived hosts, such fluctuations cannot be ruled out in more stable populations of longer-lived hosts. 5.Synthesis and applications. Fluctuations in population size and disease prevalence should be considered in the design and implementation of wildlife disease surveillance, and the framework presented here provides a template for conducting suitable power calculations. Ultimately, understanding the impact of fluctuations in demographic and epidemiological processes will enable improvements to wildlife disease surveillance systems leading to better characterization of, and protection against endemic, emerging and re-emerging disease threats.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1460 - 1469
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Applied Ecology
Early online date29 Apr 2016
Publication statusFirst published - 29 Apr 2016

Bibliographical note



  • Demographic fluctuations
  • Disease surveillance
  • Disease transmission models
  • Stochastic population models
  • Wildlife disease systems
  • Wildlife ecology
  • Wildlife populations

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