U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Date of this Version



Egan, Michael E., Kim M. Pepin, Justin W. Fischer, Scott E. Hygnstrom, Kurt C. VerCauteren, and Guillaume Bastille-Rousseau. 2023. “Social Network Analysis of White-Tailed Deer Scraping Behavior: Implications for Disease Transmission.” Ecosphere 14(2): e4434. https://doi.org/10.1002/ ecs2.4434


Open Access CC-BY


Host contact structure affects pathogen transmission in host populations, but many measures of host contact do not distinguish contacts that are relevant to pathogen transmission from those that are not. Scrapes are sites for chemical communication by white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) during the breeding season and potential sites of transmission of prions, the causative agent of chronic wasting disease (CWD). Scrape-related behaviors vary in their probability of transmitting prions to or from the environment, suggesting that behavior be combined with contact structure to better reflect potential heterogeneity in prion transmission at scrapes. We recorded visits and behaviors by deer at scrapes throughout DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska in 2005 and 2006. We recorded 2013 interactions by 169 unique identifiable males and 75 females. Adult males performed the most scrape-related behaviors and spent the most time at scrapes, especially smelling the overhanging branch (70%), smelling the scrape (59%), licking/grasping the overhanging branch (44%), and scraping (36%). We used social network analysis to test the effect of behavior on indirect contact networks among deer at scrapes. By weighting edges based on the frequency and duration of behaviors, we produced networks representing sources of variation in scrape use and compared these networks to evaluate the effects of behavior on network contact structure. Social networks based on scrape-related behavior were highly connected and dependent upon the frequency, duration, and type of behavior exhibited at scrapes (e.g., scraping, interacting with a scrape or overhanging branch, rub-urinating, grazing) as well as the age of the deer. Accounting for contact frequency produced networks with lower variation in contact, but higher ability to facilitate contact among disparate groups. Including behavior when defining edges did not preserve the network properties of simpler measures (i.e., unweighted networks) suggesting that heterogeneity in behaviors that affect transmission probability is important for inferring transmission networks from contact networks. High connectivity through indirect contacts suggests that scrapes may be effective targets for management. Adult male deer had the highest connectivity, suggesting that management strategies focused on reducing their interaction with scrapes through density reduction or behavioral modification could reduce the connectivity of indirect contact networks.