Meta-analysis and research on host–parasite interactions: past and future
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- Poulin, R. & Forbes, M.R. Evol Ecol (2012) 26: 1169. doi:10.1007/s10682-011-9544-0
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Host–parasite interactions are characterised by a lack of stable species-specific traits that limits generalisations one can make even about particular host or parasite species. For instance, the virulence, life history traits or transmission mode of a given parasite species can depend on which of its suitable hosts it infects. In the search for general rules or patterns, meta-analysis provides a possible solution to the challenges posed by the highly variable outcomes of host–parasite interactions. It allows an estimate of the overall association between any factor and its biological response that transcends the particulars of given host and parasite taxonomic combinations. In this review, we begin with a historical overview of the use of meta-analysis in research on the ecology and evolution of host–parasite interactions. We then identify several key conceptual advances that were made possible only through meta-analytical synthesis. For example, meta-analysis revealed the predominant association between rates of host and parasite gene flow and local adaptation, as well as an unexpected latitudinal gradient in parasite virulence, or parasite-induced host mortality. Finally, we propose some areas of research on host–parasite interactions that are based on a mature theoretical foundation and for which there now exist sufficient primary results to make them ripe for meta-analysis. The search for the processes causing variability in parasite species richness among host species, and the link between the expression of host resistance and the specificity of parasites, are two such research areas. The main objective of this review is to promote meta-analysis as a synthetic tool overriding the idiosyncrasies of specific host–parasite combinations and capable of uncovering the universal trends, if any, in the evolutionary ecology of parasitism.