Strength in numbers: high parasite burdens increase transmission of a protozoan parasite of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)
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- de Roode, J.C., Chi, J., Rarick, R.M. et al. Oecologia (2009) 161: 67. doi:10.1007/s00442-009-1361-6
Parasites often produce large numbers of offspring within their hosts. High parasite burdens are thought to be important for parasite transmission, but can also lower host fitness. We studied the protozoan Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a common parasite of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), to quantify the benefits of high parasite burdens for parasite transmission. This parasite is transmitted vertically when females scatter spores onto eggs and host plant leaves during oviposition; spores can also be transmitted between mating adults. Monarch larvae were experimentally infected and emerging adult females were mated and monitored in individual outdoor field cages. We provided females with fresh host plant material daily and quantified their lifespan and lifetime fecundity. Parasite transmission was measured by counting the numbers of parasite spores transferred to eggs and host plant leaves. We also quantified spores transferred from infected females to their mating partners. Infected monarchs had shorter lifespans and lower lifetime fecundity than uninfected monarchs. Among infected females, those with higher parasite loads transmitted more parasite spores to their eggs and to host plant leaves. There was also a trend for females with greater parasite loads to transmit more spores to their mating partners. These results demonstrate that high parasite loads on infected butterflies confer a strong fitness advantage to the parasite by increasing between-host transmission.