Genetic and spatial characterization of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) population in the area stretching between the Eastern and Dinaric Alps and its relationship with rabies and canine distemper dynamics
Information on the population dynamics of a reservoir species have been increasingly adopted to understand and eventually predict the dispersal patterns of infectious diseases throughout an area. Although potentially relevant, to date there are no studies which have investigated the genetic structure of the red fox population in relation to infectious disease dynamics. Therefore, we genetically and spatially characterised the red fox population in the area stretching between the Eastern and Dinaric Alps, which has been affected by both distemper and rabies at different time intervals. Red foxes collected from north-eastern Italy, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia between 2006–2012, were studied using a set of 21 microsatellite markers. We confirmed a weak genetic differentiation within the fox population using Bayesian clustering analyses, and we were able to differentiate the fox population into geographically segregated groups. Our finding might be due to the presence of geographical barriers that have likely influenced the distribution of the fox population, limiting in turn gene flow and spread of infectious diseases. Focusing on the Italian red fox population, we observed interesting variations in the prevalence of both diseases among distinct fox clusters, with the previously identified Italy 1 and Italy 2 rabies as well as distemper viruses preferentially affecting different sub-groups identified in the study. Knowledge of the regional-scale population structure can improve understanding of the epidemiology and spread of diseases. Our study paves the way for an integrated approach for disease control coupling pathogen, host and environmental data to inform targeted control programs in the future.