Arbovirus infection increases with group size

Charles R. Brown, Nicholas Komar, Sunita B. Quick, Rajni A. Sethi, Nicholas A. Panella, Mary Bomberger Brown, Martin Pfeffer

Abstract

Buggy Creek (BCR) virus is an arthropod-borne alphavirus that is naturally transmitted to its vertebrate host the cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) by an invertebrate vector, namely the cimicid swallow bug (Oeciacus vicarius). We examined how the prevalence of the virus varied with the group size of both its vector and host. The study was conducted in southwestern Nebraska where cliff swallows breed in colonies ranging from one to 3700 nests and the bug populations at a site vary directly with the cliff swallow colony size. The percentage of cliff swallow nests containing bugs infected with BCR virus increased significantly with colony size at a site in the current year and at the site in the previous year. This result could not be explained by differences in the bug sampling methods, date of sampling, sample size of the bugs, age structure of the bugs or the presence of an alternate host, the house sparrow (Passer domesticus). Colony sites that were reused by cliff swallows showed a positive autocorrelation in the percentage of nests with infected bugs between year t and year t+1, but the spatial autocorrelation broke down for year t+2. The increased prevalence of BCR virus at larger cliff swallow colonies probably reflects the larger bug populations there, which are less likely to decline in size and lead to virus extinction. To the authors' knowledge this is the first demonstration of arbovirus infection increasing with group size and one of the few known predictive ecological relationships between an arbovirus and its vectors/hosts. The results have implications for both understanding the fitness consequences of coloniality for cliff swallows and understanding the temporal and spatial variation in arboviral epidemics.