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Body size and ecological traits in fleas parasitic on small mammals in the Palearctic: larger species attain higher abundance


We studied the relationships between body size and (a) abundance and (b) host specificity in fleas parasitic on small mammals (rodents and shrews) in the Palearctic taking into account the confounding effect of phylogeny. We tested these relationships both across 127 flea species and within separate phylogenetic clades, predicting higher abundance and lower host specificity (in terms of the number or diversity of hosts used by a flea) in smaller species. We also tested for the relationships between body size and abundance separately for species that spend most of their lives on a host’s body (the “body” fleas) and species that spend most of their lives in a host’s burrow or nest (the “nest” fleas). A significant phylogenetic signal in body size was detected across all fleas, as well as in five of six separate clades. Across all fleas and in majority of phylogenetic clades, mean abundance significantly increased with an increase in body size. The same pattern was found for both the “body” and the “nest” fleas, although the slope of the relationship appeared to be steeper in the former than in the latter. Neither measure of host specificity demonstrated a significant correlation with body size regardless of the subset of flea species analysed. We explain higher abundance attained by larger flea species by higher fecundity and/or competitive advantage upon smaller species at larval stage. We conclude that the macroecological patterns reported to date in parasites are far from being universal.

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We thank D.L. Ivanov, A.L. Ozerov and A.A. Gusakov for providing access to the entomological collections of the Zoological Museum of Moscow State University. This is publication no. 970 of the Mitrani Department of Desert Ecology.


This study was partly supported by the Israel Science Foundation (grant number 149/17 to BRK and ISK). ENS received the Scholarship of the President of the Russian Federation for short-term studies abroad. EMW received financial support from the Blaustein Center for Scientific Cooperation. LVDM received financial support from the Blaustein Center for Scientific Cooperation and the French Associates Institute for Agriculture and Biotechnology of Drylands.

Author information

ENS and BRK conceived of the study. ENS, ISK and BRK collected data. BRK, EMW, and LVDM analysed data. All authors wrote the manuscript.

Correspondence to Boris R. Krasnov.

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This article relies on previously published data and does not contain experiments with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors. For this type of study formal consent is not required.

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Communicated by George Heimpel.

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Surkova, E.N., Warburton, E.M., van der Mescht, L. et al. Body size and ecological traits in fleas parasitic on small mammals in the Palearctic: larger species attain higher abundance. Oecologia 188, 559–569 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-018-4235-y

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  • Abundance
  • Body length
  • Fleas
  • Host specificity
  • Phylogeny