Dynamic, spatial models of parasite transmission in wildlife: Their structure, applications and remaining challenges

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Individual differences in contact rate can arise from host, group and landscape heterogeneity and can result in different patterns of spatial spread for diseases in wildlife populations with concomitant implications for disease control in wildlife of conservation concern, livestock and humans. While dynamic disease models can provide a better understanding of the drivers of spatial spread, the effects of landscape heterogeneity have only been modelled in a few well-studied wildlife systems such as rabies and bovine tuberculosis. Such spatial models tend to be either purely theoretical with intrinsic limiting assumptions or individual-based models that are often highly species- and system-specific, limiting the breadth of their utility. Our goal was to review studies that have utilized dynamic, spatial models to answer questions about pathogen transmission in wildlife and identify key gaps in the literature. We begin by providing an overview of the main types of dynamic, spatial models (e.g., metapopulation, network, lattice, cellular automata, individual-based and continuous-space) and their relation to each other. We investigate different types of ecological questions that these models have been used to explore: pathogen invasion dynamics and range expansion, spatial heterogeneity and pathogen persistence, the implications of management and intervention strategies and the role of evolution in host–pathogen dynamics. We reviewed 168 studies that consider pathogen transmission in free-ranging wildlife and classify them by the model type employed, the focal host–pathogen system, and their overall research themes and motivation. We observed a significant focus on mammalian hosts, a few well-studied or purely theoretical pathogen systems, and a lack of studies occurring at the wildlife-public health or wildlife–livestock interfaces. Finally, we discuss challenges and future directions in the context of unprecedented human-mediated environmental change. Spatial models may provide new insights into understanding, for example, how global warming and habitat disturbance contribute to disease maintenance and emergence. Moving forward, better integration of dynamic, spatial disease models with approaches from movement ecology, landscape genetics/genomics and ecoimmunology may provide new avenues for investigation and aid in the control of zoonotic and emerging infectious diseases.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)559-580
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
University of Minnesota Academic Health Center Seed Grant; University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research; Division of Environmental Biology, Grant/ Award Number: 1413925, 1654609 and 1701069; National Science Foundation, Grant/Award Number: GRFP 00039202

Funding Information:
L.A.W. was funded by the National Science Foundation (GRFP-00039202 and DEB-1701069). M.E.C. was funded by National Science Foundation (DEB-1413925 and DEB-1654609), the University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Academic Health Center Seed Grant. The authors would like to thank three anonymous reviewers and the associate editor for valuable feedback.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 The Authors. Journal of Animal Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society.


  • dynamic disease models
  • landscape heterogeneity
  • parasite
  • pathogen
  • spatial heterogeneity
  • spatial models
  • transmission
  • wildlife


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