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The American West’s changing climate might mean more plague-carrying critters

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Prairie dogs in the Western United States are particularly susceptible to plague. jarenwicklund/Deposit Photos SHARE

Every year, a handful of Americans catch plague. The disease, caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis , was introduced to North America during the early 1900s and stuck around in rodents in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. When treated with antibiotics, it’s no longer deadly to humans—prairie dogs aren’t so lucky.

According to recent research , between 1950 and 2017, swaths of the Mountain West became 30 to 40 percent more suitable for the bacteria because of climate change. That’s a hint at how future warming might affect the transmission of animal-borne diseases in general.

“There’s this conventional wisdom that the biggest impacts are going to be from heat and disasters, and I just don’t think that’s a sure thing,” Colin Carlson, the study’s lead author, told Gizmodo . “I think it’s just harder to reconstruct the climate signal for infectious diseases.”

Plague can infect a wide range of species, but it establishes long-term reservoirs in rodent populations. In Central Asia, it appears to hang around in gerbils, while in North America, prairie dogs seem to play a key role. The bacteria spreads from animal to animal via […]

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