Elucidating feeding relationships between hosts and parasites remains a significant challenge in studies of the ecology of infectious diseases, especially those involving small or cryptic vectors. Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) are a species of conservation importance in the North American Great Plains whose populations are extirpated by plague, a flea-vectored, bacterial disease. Using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays, we determined that fleas (Oropsylla hirsuta) associated with prairie dogs feed upon northern grasshopper mice (Onychomys leucogaster), a rodent that has been implicated in the transmission and maintenance of plague in prairie-dog colonies. Our results definitively show that grasshopper mice not only share fleas with prairie dogs during plague epizootics, but also provide them with blood meals, offering a mechanism by which the pathogen, Yersinia pestis, may be transmitted between host species and maintained between epizootics. The lack of identifiable host DNA in a significant fraction of engorged Oropsylla hirsuta collected from animals (47%) and prairie-dog burrows (100%) suggests a rapid rate of digestion and feeding that may facilitate disease transmission during epizootics but also complicate efforts to detect feeding on alternative hosts. Combined with other analytical approaches, e.g., stable isotope analysis, molecular genetic techniques can provide novel insights into host-parasite feeding relationships and improve our understanding of the role of alternative hosts in the transmission and maintenance of disease.
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