Animal social behaviour can have important effects on the long-term dynamics of diseases. In particular, preferential spatial relationships between individuals can lead to differences in the rates of disease spread within a population. We examined the concurrent influence of genetic relatedness, sex, age, home range overlap, time of year, and prion disease status on proximal associations of adult Rocky Mountain mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus hemionus) in a chronic wasting disease endemic area. We also quantified the temporal stability of these associations across different sex, age, and disease status classes. We used three years of high frequency telemetry data from 74 individuals to record encounters within 25 m of each other, and to calculate seasonal home range overlap measured by volume of intersection (VI). The strength of pairwise spatial association between adult mule deer was independent of genetic relatedness, age and disease status. Seasonal variation in association strength was not consistent across years, perhaps due to annual changes in weather conditions. The influence of home range overlap on association strength varied seasonally, whereby associations were stronger in pre-rut and fawning than in the rest of the seasons. The sexes of individuals also interacted with both VI and season. At increasing levels of VI, associations were stronger between females than between males and between females and males. The strongest associations in pre-rut were between males, while the strongest in rut were between females and males. The temporal stability of associations was markedly dependant on the sex and the diagnosis of the associating pair. Our findings highlight the importance of considering concurrent effects of biological and environmental factors when seeking to understand the role of social preference in behavioural ecology and disease spread. Applying this knowledge in epidemiological modelling will shed light on the dynamics of disease transmission among mule deer.

Mejía-Salazar, M.F. (María Fernanda), Goldizen, A.W. (Anne W.), Menz, C.S. (Clementine S.), Dwyer, R.G. (Ross G.), Blomberg, S.P. (Simon P.), Waldner, C.L. (Cheryl L.), … Bollinger, T.K. (Trent K.). (2017). Mule deer spatial association patterns and potential implications for transmission of an epizootic disease. PLoS ONE, 12(4). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0175385