|dc.description.abstract||The eco-epidemiology of bovine tuberculosis (Tb) in wild deer (mainly red deer Cervus elaphus) in New Zealand was investigated. Bovine Tb is caused by Mycobacterium bovis. Specific aims were to clarify the likely routes of infection in deer, and to determine the status of deer as hosts of Tb, the likely rates and routes of inter- and intra-species transmission between deer and other wildlife hosts, the role of deer in spreading Tb, and the likely utility of deer as sentinels of Tb presence in wildlife. As the possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) is the main wildlife host of Tb, the research also included some investigation of transmission routes in possums.
Patterns of infection were measured in 994 deer killed between 1993 and 2003. Tb prevalence varied between areas (range 8–36%). Few deer had generalised infection, with 21–68% of infected deer having no visible lesions, depending on the area. The retropharyngeal lymph nodes and oropharyngeal tonsils were commonly infected. No dependent fawns less than 0.75 years old were infected, indicating intra-species transmission is rare in wild deer. Where possums were not controlled, the net (cumulative) force of infection in young (1–4 y) deer was 0.10–0.24 per year in males and 0.09–0.12 per year in females, but much lower in older deer (less than 0.05 per year). Possum control reduced the net force of infection quickly, and eventually to zero. However, Tb persisted in possum-controlled areas through immigration of infected deer and, for almost a decade, through the survival of resident deer infected before possum control. Tb was lost from infected deer at an exponential rate of 0.13 per year, mostly as a result of deer recovering from infection rather than dying from it. Wild deer do die of Tb, but there was no discernible effect on age structure. The occurrence of infection in deer was not linked to the local deer or possum density at their kill sites (i.e. in their home range), but the area-wide prevalence of Tb in deer was closely correlated with Tb levels in possums, which were in turn correlated with area-wide measures of possum density. For wild deer in New Zealand, Tb is a persistent but usually inconsequential disease of the lymphatic system. It is acquired mainly by young independent deer, usually orally via the tonsils, and probably as a result of licking infected possums.
Many species fed on deer carrion, including possums. Most possums encountering carrion did not feed on it, but a few fed for long periods. Other scavengers such ferrets (Mustela furo), hawks (Circus approximans), and weka (a hen-sized flightless native bird; Gallirallus australis) fed in a way that probably increased the infectivity of carrion to possums. Commercial deer hunting may have facilitated the historical establishment of Tb in possums. Scavenging (including cannibalism) and interactions with dead and dying possums are identified for the first time as potentially important routes for transmission of Tb to possums, and I develop new hypotheses involving peri- and post-mortem transmission in possums that explain many of the epidemiological patterns that are characteristic of the disease in possum.
In continuous native forest, deer home range size averaged 250 hectares for six young females, and over twice that for two males. Over 90% of infected deer are likely to die within 2 km (females) or 6 km (males) of where they acquired Tb, but deer could occasionally carry Tb up to 30 km. Deer will be useful as sentinels, but only where other sentinels are rare, because the force of infection for a deer with a single infected possum in its home range is only 0.004 per year, compared to greater than 0.2 per year for deliberately released pigs. Deer are occasionally capable of initiating new cycles of infection in wildlife, but deer control is not essential to eradicate Tb from wildlife.||en