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European red squirrel population dynamics driven by squirrelpox at a gray squirrel invasion interface

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

  • Julian Chantrey
  • Timothy D. Dale
  • Jonathan M. Read
  • Steve White
  • Fiona Whitfield
  • David Jones
  • Colin J. McInnes
  • Michael Begon
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>10/2014
<mark>Journal</mark>Ecology and Evolution
Issue number19
Number of pages12
Pages (from-to)3788-3799
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date11/09/14
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Infectious disease introduced by non-native species is increasingly cited as a facilitator of native population declines, but direct evidence may be lacking due to inadequate population and disease prevalence data surrounding an outbreak. Previous indirect evidence and theoretical models support squirrelpox virus (SQPV) as being potentially involved in the decline of red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) following the introduction of the non-native gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) to the United Kingdom. The red squirrel is a major UK conservation concern and understanding its continuing decline is important for any attempt to mitigate the decline. The red squirrel-gray squirrel system is also exemplary of the interplay between infectious disease (apparent competition) and direct competition in driving the replacement of a native by an invasive species. Time series data from Merseyside are presented on squirrel abundance and squirrelpox disease (SQPx) incidence, to determine the effect of the pathogen and the nonnative species on the native red squirrel populations. Analysis indicates that SQPx in red squirrels has a significant negative impact on squirrel densities and their population growth rate (PGR). There is little evidence for a direct gray squirrel impact; only gray squirrel presence (but not density) proved to influence red squirrel density, but not red squirrel PGR. The dynamics of red SQPx cases are largely determined by previous red SQPx cases, although previous infection of local gray squirrels also feature, and thus, SQPV-infected gray squirrels are identified as potentially initiating outbreaks of SQPx in red squirrels. Retrospective serology indicates that approximately 8% of red squirrels exposed to SQPV may survive infection during an epidemic. This study further highlights the UK red squirrel - gray squirrel system as a classic example of a native species population decline strongly facilitated by infectious disease introduced by a non-native species. It is therefore paramount that disease prevention and control measures are integral in attempts to conserve red squirrels in the United Kingdom.