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Proc Biol Sci. 2013 Sep 7;280(1766):20131290. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1290. Print 2013 Sep 7.

Do pathogens become more virulent as they spread? Evidence from the amphibian declines in Central America.

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School of Marine and Tropical Biology, Centre for Tropical Biology and Climate Change, James Cook University, , Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia.


The virulence of a pathogen can vary strongly through time. While cyclical variation in virulence is regularly observed, directional shifts in virulence are less commonly observed and are typically associated with decreasing virulence of biological control agents through coevolution. It is increasingly appreciated, however, that spatial effects can lead to evolutionary trajectories that differ from standard expectations. One such possibility is that, as a pathogen spreads through a naive host population, its virulence increases on the invasion front. In Central America, there is compelling evidence for the recent spread of pathogenic Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) and for its strong impact on amphibian populations. Here, we re-examine data on Bd prevalence and amphibian population decline across 13 sites from southern Mexico through Central America, and show that, in the initial phases of the Bd invasion, amphibian population decline lagged approximately 9 years behind the arrival of the pathogen, but that this lag diminished markedly over time. In total, our analysis suggests an increase in Bd virulence as it spread southwards, a pattern consistent with rapid evolution of increased virulence on Bd's invading front. The impact of Bd on amphibians might therefore be driven by rapid evolution in addition to more proximate environmental drivers.


amphibian declines; chytridiomycosis; epidemiology; hierarchical Bayesian model; host–pathogen; virulence

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