Abstract

Abstract Wildlife populations may be the subject of management interventions for disease control that can have unintended, counterproductive effects. Social structure exerts a strong influence over infectious disease transmission in addition to other characteristics of populations such as size and density that are the primary target for disease control. Social network approaches have been widely used to understand disease transmission in wildlife but rarely in the context of perturbations, such as culling, despite the likely impacts of such disturbance on social structure and disease dynamics. Here we present a ‘removal’ study of a free‐living population of resident Canada geese Branta canadensis, a highly social species that is frequently managed by culling and can carry pathogens relevant to human and domestic animal health. We quantified social network structure and spatial behaviour before and after controlled culling of individuals during the summer moult. Culling did not substantially increase individual social connectivity. Individuals that moulted at cull sites or were formerly strongly associated with removed birds were more likely to strengthen and maintain any surviving existing associations while also forming new associations. However, the establishment of new associations was largely compensatory (with only small increases in the number and strength of connections) and occurred locally. Synthesis and applications: Geese that survived the cull responded by strengthening existing social relationships and forming new, compensatory relationships with birds local to them in the network. In the short term, such compensatory adjustments to patterns of association in response to culling could facilitate pathogen transmission. But in the longer term, controlled culling of geese is unlikely to strongly influence pathogen spread and may even slow transmission into new social clusters by reducing wider mixing. When managing wildlife for disease control, in addition to changes in social network structure the prevalence of infection at the time of the cull and the mode of transmission (e.g. direct vs. environmental) will also be critical determinants of disease transmission risk in perturbed populations of geese and other wild animals.

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