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Spatial analysis of plague in California: niche modeling predictions of the current distribution and potential response to climate change

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Plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is a public and wildlife health concern in California and the western United States. This study explores the spatial characteristics of positive plague samples in California and tests Maxent, a machine-learning method that can be used to develop niche-based models from presence-only data, for mapping the potential distribution of plague foci. Maxent models were constructed using geocoded seroprevalence data from surveillance of California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) as case points and Worldclim bioclimatic data as predictor variables, and compared and validated using area under the receiver operating curve (AUC) statistics. Additionally, model results were compared to locations of positive and negative coyote (Canis latrans) samples, in order to determine the correlation between Maxent model predictions and areas of plague risk as determined via wild carnivore surveillance.


Models of plague activity in California ground squirrels, based on recent climate conditions, accurately identified case locations (AUC of 0.913 to 0.948) and were significantly correlated with coyote samples. The final models were used to identify potential plague risk areas based on an ensemble of six future climate scenarios. These models suggest that by 2050, climate conditions may reduce plague risk in the southern parts of California and increase risk along the northern coast and Sierras.


Because different modeling approaches can yield substantially different results, care should be taken when interpreting future model predictions. Nonetheless, niche modeling can be a useful tool for exploring and mapping the potential response of plague activity to climate change. The final models in this study were used to identify potential plague risk areas based on an ensemble of six future climate scenarios, which can help public managers decide where to allocate surveillance resources. In addition, Maxent model results were significantly correlated with coyote samples, indicating that carnivore surveillance programs will continue to be important for tracking the response of plague to future climate conditions.

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