Investigation of the Geographic Origin of Burrowing Owl Fleas with Implications for the Ecology of Plague

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Host-parasite relationships between Western Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) and the fleas (Pulex irritans, Siphonaptera:Pulicidae) they harbor were studied to understand the extent to which migratory Burrowing Owls translocated fleas from wintering grounds to breeding grounds. This has implications for host-parasite relationships in Burrowing Owls and also potentially for the dynamics of plague, as Burrowing Owl distributions overlap plague foci, owls inhabit fossorial mammal colonies where epizootic outbreaks of plague occur, and owls may harbor species of flea that are competent plague vectors. We used hydrogen stable isotope analysis to help elucidate geographic origins of fleas collected from adults and nestlings in 2 migratory populations of Burrowing Owls in Idaho and Oregon, USA. For adults, we posited that bird-mediated dispersal would impart flea isotopic compositions representative of southern latitudes and be similar to owl toenail tissue recently grown on wintering grounds, but they would differ from contour feathers presumably grown on breeding grounds the previous year. We assumed nestling feathers and toenails would have isotopic compositions representative of the breeding grounds. We analyzed contour feathers and toenails from adults collected shortly after they arrived in breeding grounds following spring migration and from nestlings later in the breeding season, to which we compared isotopic compositions in fleas collected from individuals of both age classes. Fleas on nestlings in both populations had isotopic compositions that did not differ from nestling feathers and toenails, suggesting that nestling fleas had breeding ground origins. Fleas on adults in one population (Oregon) had breeding ground isotopic signatures, as flea compositions did not differ from nestling feathers or toenails. Adult owls in Idaho had fleas that similarly did not express a wintering ground signature, but they were enriched in the heavy isotope (deuterium) relative to nestling feathers and toenails. Therefore, we discuss the possibility that adult owls in Idaho acquired fleas at migratory stopover sites. While the latter indicates that Burrowing Owls have the potential to disperse fleas, there was no evidence of continent-wide movement of fleas by owls from wintering grounds to breeding grounds.