Body size, trophic level, and the use of fish as transmission routes by parasites
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Within food webs, trophically transmitted helminth parasites use predator–prey links for their own transfer from intermediate prey hosts, in which they occur as larval or juvenile stages, to predatory definitive hosts, in which they reach maturity. In large taxa that can be used as intermediate and/or definitive hosts, such as fish, a host species’ position within a trophic network should determine whether its parasite fauna consists mostly of adult or larval helminths, since vulnerability to predation determines an animal’s role in predator–prey links. Using a large database on the helminth parasites of 303 fish species, we tested whether the proportion of parasite species in a host that occur as larval or juvenile stages is best explained by their trophic level or by their body size. Independent of fish phylogeny or habitat, only fish body length emerged as a significant predictor of the proportion of parasites in a host that occur as larval stages from our multivariate analyses. On average, the proportion of larval helminth taxa in fish shorter than 20 cm was twice as high as that for fish over 100 cm in length. This is consistent with the prediction that small fishes, being more vulnerable to predation, make better hosts for larval parasites. However, trophic level and body length are strongly correlated among fish species, and they may have separate though confounded effects on the parasite fauna exploiting a given species. Helminths show varying levels of host specificity toward their intermediate host when the latter is the downstream host involved in trophic transmission toward an upstream definitive host. Given this broad physiological compatibility of many helminths with fish hosts, our results indicate that fish body length, as a proxy for vulnerability to predators, is a better predictor of their use by helminth larvae than their trophic level based on diet content.
KeywordsFood webs Helminths Complex life cycle Trophic link Intermediate hosts Predation
We are grateful to Juan Timi and members of the Otago Ecological Parasitology Research Group for useful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript, and in particular to one anonymous referee who provided very thoughtful suggestions. Financial support came in part via a grant from the Marsden Fund.
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