Researchers at the University of Exeter and the AHVLA's National Wildlife Management Centre have shown that the social lives of badgers are related to their risk of infection with bovine tuberculosis (TB).
By equipping more than 50 wild badgers with electronic 'proximity collars' that automatically tracked their social contacts, Exeter PhD Student Nicola Weber built a network of contacts across the population and analysed patterns of infection. She found that TB-infected animals were less well-connected to their own groups than uninfected badgers, but at the same time infected individuals formed important links for the flow of infection between groups.
The research, which is published today in the journal Current Biology, suggests this unusual social arrangement may stabilise the spread of TB infection across the population.
Professor Robbie McDonald from the University of Exeter said: "This study has revealed an important link between social networks and TB infection. Infected animals were likely to be less important for spread within groups while at the same time being more important for spread between groups.
"Social stability is thought to mitigate disease spread, perhaps by maintaining the distinctive position of these individuals. Culling badgers perturbs social structures and we think our findings may help understanding of so-called 'perturbation', where culling has been linked to increases in TB in badgers.
"Curbing TB infection in wildlife remains a challenge. Vaccination has the potential to disrupt disease flow, without perturbing social network structures," said McDonald.
Tuberculosis infection in cattle is a major animal health challenge in the UK and Ireland. In 2012, more than 8 million tests were conducted on cattle and 38,000 cattle were slaughtered to control TB. This testing and the resulting compensation are costly; controlling TB costs the UK taxpayer around £100m every year.
The study of the spread of disease through analysis of social networks has applications beyond badgers. The network analyses involved are similar to those used in people and so these techniques can be used to learn about how infection is transferred in a range of behaviourally complex hosts including humans, livestock and wildlife.
The work was conducted at the AHVLA's National Wildlife Management Centre at Woodchester Park, Gloucestershire. The study was funded by the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
About the University of Exeter
The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13, the University of Exeter is a Russell Group university and in the top one percent of institutions globally. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 18,000 students and is ranked 8th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide league table, 10th in The Complete University Guide and 12th in the Guardian University Guide 2014. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 90% of the University's research was rated as being at internationally recognised levels and 16 of its 31 subjects are ranked in the top 10, with 27 subjects ranked in the top 20.
The University has four campuses. The Streatham and St Luke's campuses are in Exeter and there are two campuses in Cornwall, Penryn and Truro. In an arrangement that is unique in the UK, the Penryn Campus is owned and jointly managed with Falmouth University. At the campus, University of Exeter students can study programmes in the following areas: Animal Behaviour, Conservation Biology and Ecology, English, Environmental Sciences, Evolutionary Biology, Geography, Geology, History, Human Sciences, Mathematics and the Environment, Mining and Minerals Engineering, Politics and International Studies, Renewable Energy and Zoology.
The University has invested strategically to deliver more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses in the past few years; including landmark new student services centres - the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange at Penryn – together with world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment and Sustainability Institute. There are plans for another £330 million of investment between now and 2016.
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