The evolution of parasite virulence under targeted culling and harvesting in wildlife and livestock

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There is a clear need to understand the effect of human intervention on the evolution of infectious disease. In particular, culling and harvesting of both wildlife and managed livestock populations are carried out in a wide range of management practices, and they have the potential to impact the evolution of a broad range of disease characteristics. Applying eco-evolutionary theory we show that once culling/harvesting becomes targeted on specific disease classes, the established result that culling selects for higher virulence is only found when sufficient infected individuals are culled. If susceptible or recovered individuals are targeted, selection for lower virulence can occur. An important implication of this result is that when culling to eradicate an infectious disease from a population, while it is optimal to target infected individuals, the consequent evolution can increase the basic reproductive ratio of the infection, R0, and make parasite eradication more difficult. We show that increases in evolved virulence due to the culling of infected individuals can lead to excess population decline when sustainably harvesting a population. In contrast, culling susceptible or recovered individuals can select for decreased virulence and a reduction in population decline through culling. The implications to the evolution of virulence are typically the same in wildlife populations, that are regulated by the parasite, and livestock populations, that have a constant population size where restocking balances the losses due to mortality. However, the well-known result that vertical transmission selects for lower virulence and transmission in wildlife populations is less marked in livestock populations for parasites that convey long-term immunity since restocking can enhance the density of the immune class. Our work emphasizes the importance of understanding the evolutionary consequences of intervention strategies and the different ecological feedbacks that can occur in wildlife and livestock populations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1697-1707
Number of pages11
JournalEvolutionary Applications
Issue number10
Early online date28 Sept 2023
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2023


  • disease transmission
  • virulence evolution
  • mathematical model
  • disease management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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