, Volume 140, Issue 2, pp 372-378
Date: 08 May 2004

The relationship between specialization and local abundance: the case of helminth parasites of birds

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Positive relationships are commonly observed between the abundance of a species in a locality and the frequency of its occurrence among localities on a larger scale. This pattern may not hold for parasitic organisms when the average abundance of a parasite among its hosts is related to the number of host species in which it occurs, because of the additive investment in specific adaptations to counter host immune responses required for each host species in a parasite’s repertoire. For a rigorous test of the hypothesis that there is a trade-off between the number of host species that can be successfully exploited and the average abundance of parasites in those hosts, one needs to take into account the phylogenetic (or taxonomic) distances among the host species used by a parasite. Differences in immune responses are likely to increase with increasing phylogenetic distances. The trade-off hypothesis was tested in a comparative analysis of 393 species of trematodes, cestodes and nematodes parasitic in birds surveyed from the same geographical area, using an index of host specificity that measures the average taxonomic distances between a parasite’s known host species. After correcting for the influences of parasite phylogeny and other potential confounding variables, mean abundance was negatively correlated with the average taxonomic distance among host species for nematodes, and with the variance in taxonomic distances among hosts for cestodes. In the case of trematodes, these variables covaried positively. The trade-off between average infection success and how taxonomically distant a parasite’s host species are from each other was only found in two of the three groups of helminths investigated, possibly because of compensating features in trematodes, such as their ability to multiply asexually in intermediate hosts. These results provide empirical evidence consistent with the hypothesis that specialization allows greater local adaptation and therefore greater local population abundance, supporting key predictions regarding the evolution of ecological specialization.