The removal of large herbivorous mammals can cause dramatic increases in the densities of small mammals. These small mammals are hosts for a variety of ectoparasites, many of which are important pathogens of human diseases such as plague and murine typhus. It is thus valuable from a human health perspective to understand if large herbivore removals can indirectly affect ectoparasite numbers and thus potentially alter disease risk. To make this determination, we experimentally excluded large herbivores and measured the number of fleas present on the numerically dominant small mammal, the pouched mouse, Saccostomus mearnsi. Removing large herbivores nearly doubled S. mearnsi density, while the percentage of mice infested with fleas (prevalence) and the average number of fleas per sampled mouse (intensity) remained constant. The net effect of doubling the number of mice via the removal of large herbivores was a near doubling in the number of fleas present in the study habitat. Because these fleas also parasitize humans and can serve as disease vectors, this work empirically demonstrates a potential mechanism by which ecosystem alterations could affect human risk for zoonotic diseases.
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