Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) are small, ground-dwelling owls of western North American grasslands and steppes. As the owls rely on rodent prey and occupy burrows once inhabited by fossorial mammals, they often harbor fleas. Fleas are noteworthy because they act as vectors of Yersinia pestis, the etiological agent of plague, yet it remains poorly understood what role Burrowing Owl fleas may have in plague dynamics. In 2015 and 2016, a plague epizootic occurred in southern Idaho, resulting in die-offs of ground squirrels. There was potential for Burrowing Owls to encounter infected fleas or squirrels because the owls nest in proximity to ground squirrels, may use some of the same burrows, and prey on the squirrels at times. We examined flea species diversity and intensity of flea infestation on owls during the epizootic, and we tested fleas collected from owls for Y. pestis using PCR. Our study helps further understanding of the biology of Burrowing Owls and the ecology of plague in western landscapes.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/james_belthoff/53/