Novel use of epidemiological models to control the spread of unwanted behaviors in marine mammals

By Cameron Perry, SRC intern

Animal behavior is often learned or passed down through social interactions with other individuals. However, sometimes these socially transmitted behaviors increase exploitation of human resources, which may threaten human safety and economic livelihood (Schakner et al., 2016). Schakner et al. (2016) examined a case study where California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) discovered salmonids that had migrated up the Columbia River to the fish ladders located at the Bonneville Dam. Sea lions began foraging at the dam and increased the mortality of the Columbia River’s salmon and steelhead runs, 13 of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act (Schakner et al., 2016). The mouth of the Columbia River is home to tens of thousands migratory male California sea lions, however, the number of individuals foraging at the Bonneville dam began to sharply increase in 2002. This rapid increase in foraging was attributed to social learning and, in order to protect the endangered salmonids at the Dam, a culling program was established in 2008.

Study area for the case study which shows the Bonneville Dam and the East Mooring Basin where the males aggregate [Schakner et al., 2016]

Study area for the case study which shows the Bonneville Dam and the East Mooring Basin where the males aggregate [Schakner et al., 2016]

Social transmission of behaviors often mimic spread of diseases in a population. Schakner et al. (2016) aimed to use models from disease ecology to estimate the social transmissibility of dam-foraging behavior, explain how social transmission can be modeled similarly to diseases and to finally examine how effective and whether culling was necessary.

A California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) goes for a swim [Wikipedia Commons]

A California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) goes for a swim [Wikipedia Commons]

The benefits of early intervention are well known in infectious disease ecology and the social transmission of dam-foraging behavior in Californian sea lions supported this claim. The results showed that an earlier start to culling would have led to less overall foragers (Schakner et al., 2016). Similarly, if culling started prior to 2005, then fewer individuals would have to be removed than the current numbers. These results together mean that an immediate implementation of a culling program during the 2002 period of sharp increase in foraging behavior could have reduced the negative extent of social transmission and recruitment to the Bonneville Dam (Schakner et al., 2016). This also highlights the need for early culling efforts from a conservation and management aspect to minimize the total number of animals removed.

The authors hope that the Bonneville Dam case study could serve as an example what should be done in similar situations. They provided a novel synthesis of disease ecology models in social transmission and spread of behaviors in wildlife. Animal behaviors can rapidly spread through a population like an infectious disease. Social transmission of behaviors, like infectious diseases, can be managed through early intervention to reduce their spread and reach through a population.

Works cited
Schakner, Zachary A, Michael G Buhnerkempe, Mathew J Tennis, Robert J Stansell, Bjorn K van der Leeuw, James O Lloyd-Smith, and Daniel T Blumstein. 2016. “Epidemiological models to control the spread of information in marine mammals.” Proc. R. Soc. B.