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Ultimate mechanisms of age-biased flea parasitism

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Mechanisms that cause nonrandom patterns of parasite distribution among host individuals may influence the population and evolutionary dynamics of both parasites and hosts, but are still poorly understood. We studied whether survival, reproduction, and behavioral responses of fleas (Xenopsylla conformis) changed with the age of their rodent hosts (Meriones crassus), experimentally disentangling two possible mechanisms: (a) differential survival and/or fitness reward of parasites due to host age, and (b) active parasite choice of a host of a particular age. To explore the first mechanism, we raised fleas on rodents of two age groups and assessed flea survival as well as the quantity and quality of their offspring. To explore the second mechanism, three groups of fleas that differed in their previous feeding experience (no experience, experience on juvenile or experience on adult rodents) were given an opportunity to choose between juvenile and adult rodents in a Y-maze. Fleas raised on juvenile rodents had higher survival and had more offspring that emerged earlier than fleas raised on adults. However, fleas did not show any innate preference for juvenile rodents, nor were they able to learn to choose them. In contrast to our predictions, based on a single previous exposure, fleas learned to choose adult rodents. The results suggest that two mechanisms—differential survival and fitness reward of fleas, and associative learning by them—affect patterns of flea distribution between juvenile and adult rodents. The former increases whereas the latter reduces flea densities on juvenile rodents. The ability of fleas to learn to choose adult but not juvenile hosts may be due to: (a) a stronger stimulus from adults, (b) a higher profitability of adults in terms of predictability and abundance, or (c) the evolutionary importance of recognizing adult but not juvenile hosts as representatives of the species.

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Tamar Keasar, Judy Stamps, Arnon Tsairi, Michael Friger, Ally Harari, and Burt Kotler were involved in interesting and stimulating discussions. We thank Meital Yogev and Valeria Hochman for technical assistance. The experimental protocol met the requirements of the 1994 Law for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Experiments on Animals) of the State of Israel and was approved by the Ben-Gurion University Committee for the Ethical Care and Use of Animals in Experiments. Financial support during this study was provided by Israel Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport (grant 3-571). This is publication no. 573 of the Mitrani Department of Desert Ecology and no. 233 of the Ramon Science Center.

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Correspondence to Hadas Hawlena.

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Hawlena, H., Abramsky, Z. & Krasnov, B.R. Ultimate mechanisms of age-biased flea parasitism. Oecologia 154, 601–609 (2007).

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  • Host choice
  • Learning
  • Distribution among host individuals
  • Fitness reward
  • Rodents