PLAGUE is creeping through the grasslands of the US. The same bacterium that caused the Black Death seems to be quietly and irrevocably changing the landscape.
Though the plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, now rarely infects people in North America, it’s been responsible for the deaths of many black-tailed prairie dogs. This is a problem for the grasslands, where many other species rely on prairie dogs to survive. Predators eat them, animals make homes in their burrows and grass growth is shaped by them (Conservation Biology,doi.org/3cj).
The ecosystem will be affected by their disappearance, says David Eads at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “The connection between these animals and plants will be distorted and even broken.”
To stem the problem, Eads and colleagues are searching for new ways to control the spread of the plague. They are experimenting with an insecticide called delta dust to see if that reduces the numbers of fleas. “If we can’t control the problem, the grasslands are probably going to be far different within the next 100 years,” says Eads.
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