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Culprit Of Prairie Dogs' Drama May Be Caught

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Culprit Of Prairie Dogs' Drama May Be Caught

Animals

Culprit Of Prairie Dogs' Drama May Be Caught

Culprit Of Prairie Dogs' Drama May Be Caught

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129198893/129202718" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The prairie dog plague has led to massive prairie dog deaths, scaring nearby human communities for the last 60 years. Barbara Sax//AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Barbara Sax//AFP/Getty Images

The prairie dog plague has led to massive prairie dog deaths, scaring nearby human communities for the last 60 years.

Barbara Sax//AFP/Getty Images

If you look for information about prairie dogs, a surprising term starts popping up: bubonic plague.

That's because prairie dogs are especially vulnerable to the same plague that killed millions of people in Europe in the 14th century. But this isn't just a 14th century disease — the prairie dog version has led to massive prairie dog deaths and has scared nearby human communities for the past 60 years.

Scientists have known for a while that fleas were infecting the prairie dogs, but how the fleas were jumping between prairie dog communities has been a mystery. Stanford University anthropologist James Holland Jones thinks he may finally have the answer.

It's a strange little rodent called a grasshopper mouse. It's the smoking gun, Jones says, because it passes the plague between prairie dog families — called "coteries."

"When a coterie is wiped out, you've got these prairie dog fleas that are now in pretty desperate straits," Jones tells NPR's Guy Raz, "and the grasshopper mice are a convenient host that they can jump onto."

And why would a grasshopper mouse be hanging out near a prairie dog community infected with the plague? Turns out the mice are a carnivorous species that eat prairie dog carcasses. A sickened coterie makes a great buffet.

"The mice are perfectly happy to eat the carcass of a prairie dog that has died of the plague," Jones says. "That's a really terrific opportunity for these infected fleas to jump onto the mouse. Then the mouse carries [the fleas] on to the next susceptible coterie."

As an anthropologist, he says, he was drawn to the biological mystery because community behavior is known to be linked to the flare-up and spread of pathogens like the plague. Jones wanted to find out how the highly complex social structure of prairie dog communities played a role in passing on the infection.

"You have these thousands of prairie dogs in one place," Jones says, "whereas another species of rodent that isn't social like the prairie dog is, it may not have enough social interactions to [transmit] a pathogen."

It's an unfortunate situation for the prairie dogs, but their plight could help Jones' researchers keep humans safe from similar outbreaks of disease, like swine flu. In 2009, the swine flu smoldered in Mexico until a host — or hosts — left the community and suddenly spread the swine flu virus worldwide.

Jones and his team recently published their findings in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They'll use the data to create computer models that may help predict how the next outbreak will travel.