Fear of feces? Trade-offs between disease risk and foraging drive animal activity around raccoon latrines

28 November 2017

Weinstein, Sara; Moura, Chad; Mendez, Jon Francis; Lafferty, Kevin

Fear of predation alters prey behavior, which can indirectly alter entire landscapes. A parasite-induced ecology of fear might also exist if animals avoid parasite-contaminated resources when infection costs outweigh foraging benefits. To investigate whether animals avoid parasite contaminated sites, and if such avoidance balances disease costs and foraging gains, we monitored animal behavior at raccoon latrines — sites that concentrate both seeds and pathogenic parasite eggs. Using wildlife cameras, we documented over 40 potentially susceptible vertebrate species in latrines and adjacent habitat. Latrine contact rates reflected background activity, diet preferences and disease risk. Disease-tolerant raccoons and rats displayed significant site attraction, while susceptible birds and small mammals avoided these high-risk sites. This suggests that parasites, like predators, might create a landscape of fear for vulnerable hosts. Such non-consumptive parasite effects could alter disease transmission, population dynamics, and even ecosystem structure.