The ecology of plague (Yersinia pestis infection) in its ancient foci in Central Asia remains poorly understood. We present field data from two sites in Kazakhstan where the great gerbil (Rhombomys opimus) is the major natural host. Family groups inhabit and defend burrow systems spaced throughout the landscape, such that the host population may be considered a metapopulation, with each occupied burrow system a subpopulation. We examine plague transmission within and between family groups and its effect on survival. Transmission of plague occurred disproportionately within family groups although not all gerbils became infected once plague entered a burrow system. There were no spatial patterns to suggest that family groups in close proximity to infected burrow systems were more at risk of infection than those far away. At one site, infection increased the chances of burrow-system extinction. Overall, it is useful to consider the burrow system as the unit of study within a much larger metapopulation.
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