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Int J Parasitol. 2018 Jan;48(1):27-39. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpara.2017.07.006. Epub 2017 Sep 28.

Does the host matter? Variable influence of host traits on parasitism rates.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309, USA; Department of Integrative Biology, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL 33620, USA. Electronic address:


Parasitism of mammals is ubiquitous, but the processes driving parasite aggregation on hosts are poorly understood, as each system seems to show unique correlations between parasitism and host traits such as sex, age, size and body mass. Genetic diversity is also posited to influence susceptibility to parasitism, and provides a quantifiable measure of an intrinsic unchanging host property, but this link has not been well established. A lack of consistency in host traits predicting parasite heterogeneity may derive from the contribution of environmental factors to parasite aggregation. To evaluate this question, a large dataset was leveraged to explore the relationship between unchanging, intrinsic host traits (heterozygosity and sex), variable host traits (age, length and body mass), and extrinsic factors (sampling date/year and population) and flea presence/absence, abundance and intensity on two species of social burrowing mammal, the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) and the Gunnison's prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni). Prairie dogs experience frequent parasitism by fleas, but the distribution of fleas among individuals is highly skewed. In these systems, intrinsic host traits were nuanced in how they predicted flea aggregation on individual prairie dogs, with sex unimportant to parasitism rates and heterozygosity increasing the probability of infection and influencing the number of fleas in divergent ways. Variable host traits interacted with each other and with environmental or geographic stochasticity to influence flea aggregation. Length and age tended to increase parasitism, whereas the effects of body mass and condition were mediated by date and other host traits to produce both positive and negative effects on parasitism. This finding suggests that the factors affecting ectoparasite infection on individuals are complex, even within species. Importantly, there was no correlation between the number of fleas on an individual in one year and the number of fleas on the same individual the next year, supporting the idea that flea aggregation is not driven by unchanging, intrinsic characteristics of the host. Rather, these findings indicate that host traits influence parasitism in nuanced ways, including interactions with environmental characteristics and stochastic factors.


Aggregation; Ectoparasite; Flea; Genetic variation; Heterogeneity; Prairie dog

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