- Dispersal facilitates population health and maintains resilience in species via gene flow. Adult dispersal occurs in some species, is often facultative, and is poorly understood, but has important management implications, particularly with respect to disease spread. Although the role of adult dispersal in spreading disease has been documented, the potential influence of disease on dispersal has received little attention. African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) are wide ranging and harbor many pathogens that can affect nearby livestock. Dispersal of adult buffalo has been well documented, but ecological and social drivers of buffalo dispersal are poorly understood.
At the individual level, animals must balance the potential benefits of dispersal against its costs. Costs may be incurred in the form of risk, such as mortality or potential injury while dispersing, energetic and time costs associated with the energy and time invested in dispersing, and costs associated with lost opportunities, e.g. reduced fecundity due to unfamiliar surroundings and social groups. Disease in particular is another poorly-understood but potentially important factor influencing costs and benefits of dispersal. Dispersal from a crowded habitat may offer an escape from high pathogen and parasite exposure risk, conversely dispersing individuals in this stressful period may have reduced immunity and consequently be more susceptible to infections. In addition, if pathogen exposure profiles differ among social groups, dispersing animals may face new pathogen challenges to which they are immunologically naïve to, when they arrive at a new social group. However, few studies have estimated dispersal costs of large mammals, particularly those with facultative adult dispersal.
First, we investigated drivers of adult buffalo dispersal to determine whether likelihood of dispersal for individual female buffalo was influenced by (1) animal traits, including age, condition, and reproductive status (2) herd membership, (3) environmental variables - season and year, (4) gastro-intestinal parasites - strongyles, coccidia and schistosomes and (5) microparasite infections - bovine tuberculosis (Mycobacterium bovis) and brucellosis (Brucella abortus). The likelihood and drivers of buffalo dispersal varied by herd, area and year. In the Lower Sabie herd younger individuals were more likely to disperse, with most dispersal occurring in the early wet season and during an unusually dry year, 2009. In the Crocodile Bridge area buffalo in poor condition were most likely to disperse. Our findings suggest that dispersal of female buffalo is driven by either seasonal (Lower Sabie), or perhaps social (Crocodile Bridge) resource restriction. We found no direct effects of infections on buffalo dispersal, assuaging fears that highly infectious individuals might be more prone to dispersing, which could accelerate the spatial spread of infectious diseases.
Second, we investigated: (1) effects of dispersal on fitness, by comparing survival, and fecundity of dispersing and philopatric (control) buffalo, as well as comparing the difference in pre and post dispersal body condition of dispersers with the change of body condition of philopatric control animals for the same period; (2) disease risks associated with dispersal, by determining whether burdens of gastro-intestinal parasites and the incidence of bacterial and
viral infections changed during dispersal. No significant difference in mortality risk or fecundity was observed between dispersing and philopatric control animals, nor did change in body condition differ. However, we detected disease consequences of dispersal that varied by location. Dispersers from the resource-limited herd suffered more bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis infections after dispersal, both of which are chronic infections with clear, long term effects on survival and fecundity, when compared to controls from the same location. Dispersers from the less resource-limited herds had increases in schistosome burdens. Schistosomes are parasitic worms with relatively minor health effects; relatively long-lived but not as long as the life of the host (i.e., buffalo can reduce their burdens). Previous work has shown that adult buffalo disperse in response to resource limitation due to seasonal forage shortages or density dependent