Age of first infection across a range of parasite taxa in a wild mammalian population

Newborn mammals have an immature immune system that cannot sufficiently protect them against infectious diseases. However, variation in the effectiveness of maternal immunity against different parasites may couple with temporal trends in parasite exposure to influence disparities in the timing of infection risk. Determining the relationship between age and infection risk is critical in identifying the portion of a host population that contributes to parasite dynamics, as well as the parasites that regulate host recruitment. However, there are no data directly identifying timing of first infection among parasites in wildlife. Here, we took advantage of a longitudinal dataset, tracking infection status by viruses, bacteria, protists and gastro-intestinal worms in a herd of African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) to ask: how does age of first infection differ among parasite taxa? We found distinct differences in the age of first infection among parasites that aligned with the mode of transmission and parasite taxonomy. Specifically, we found that tick-borne and environmentally transmitted protists were acquired earlier than directly transmitted bacteria and viruses. These results emphasize the importance of understanding infection risk in juveniles, especially in host species where juveniles are purported to sustain parasite persistence and/or where mortality rates of juveniles influence population dynamics.

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