Biology Faculty Articles


Scaling up from epidemiology to biogeography: local infection patterns predict geographical distribution in fish parasites

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Journal of Biogeography




Aim  We investigated how the spatial distribution of parasites, measured as either their geographical range size or their frequency of occurrence among localities, relates to either their average local abundance or the variance in their abundance among localities where they occur.

Location  We used data on the abundance of 46 metazoan parasite species in 66 populations of threespine sticklebacks, Gasterosteus aculeatus, from Europe and North America.

Methods  For each parasite species, frequency of occurrence was calculated as the proportion of stickleback populations in which it occurred, and geographical range size as the area within the smallest possible polygon delimited using the coordinates of the localities where it occurred. Generalized linear models were used to assess how these two measures of spatial distribution were influenced by several predictor variables: geographical region (North America or Europe), life cycle (simple or complex), average local abundance, the coefficient of variation in abundance across localities, and median prevalence (proportion of infected hosts within a locality).

Results  Our analyses uncovered four patterns. First, parasites in North America tend to have higher frequencies of occurrence among surveyed localities, but not broader geographical ranges, than those in Europe. Second, parasite species with simple life cycles have wider geographical ranges than those with complex cycles. Third, there was a positive relationship between average abundance of the different parasite species and their frequency of occurrence, but not between average abundance and geographical range size. Fourth, the coefficient of variation in abundance covaried positively with both the frequency of occurrence and geographical range size across the different parasite species. Thus, all else being equal, parasites showing greater site-to-site variability in abundance occur in a greater proportion of localities and over a broader geographical area than those with a more stable abundance among sites.

Main conclusions  Local infection patterns are linked with large-scale distributional patterns in fish parasites, independently of host effects, such that local commonness translates into regional commonness. The mechanisms linking parasite success at both scales remain unclear, but may include those that maintain the continuum between specialist and generalist parasites. Regardless, the observed patterns have implications for the predicted changes in the geographical distributions of many parasites in response to climate change.

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