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Ecology and Evolution


John Wiley & Sons

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


Demonstrating disease impacts on the vital rates of free‐ranging mammalian hosts typically requires intensive, long‐term study. Evidence for chronic pathogens affecting reproduction but not survival is rare, but has the potential for wide‐ranging effects. Accurately quantifying disease‐associated reductions in fecundity is important for advancing theory, generating accurate predictive models, and achieving effective management. We investigated the impacts of brucellosis (Brucella abortus) on elk (Cervus canadensis) productivity using serological data from over 6,000 captures since 1990 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, USA. Over 1,000 of these records included known age and pregnancy status. Using Bayesian multilevel models, we estimated the age‐specific pregnancy probabilities of exposed and naïve elk. We then used repeat‐capture data to investigate the full effects of the disease on life history. Brucellosis exposure reduced pregnancy rates of elk captured in mid‐ and late‐winter. In an average year, we found 60% of exposed 2‐year‐old elk were pregnant compared to 91% of their naïve counterparts (a 31 percentage point reduction, 89% HPDI = 20%–42%), whereas exposed 3‐ to 9‐year‐olds were 7 percentage points less likely to be pregnant than naïve elk of their same age (89% HPDI = 2%–11%). We found these reduced rates of pregnancy to be independent from disease‐induced abortions, which afflict a portion of exposed elk. We estimate that the combination of reduced pregnancy by mid‐winter and the abortions following mid‐winter reduces the reproductive output of exposed female elk by 24%, which affects population dynamics to a similar extent as severe winters or droughts. Exposing hidden reproductive costs of disease is essential to avoid conflating them with the effects of climate and predation. Such reproductive costs cause complex population dynamics, and the magnitude of the effect we found should drive a strong selection gradient if there is heritable resistance.