The vast majority of parasites exhibit an aggregated frequency distribution within their host population, such that most hosts have few or no parasites while only a minority of hosts are heavily infected. One exception to this rule is the trophically transmitted parasite Pterygodermatites peromysci of the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), which is randomly distributed within its host population. Here, we ask: what are the factors generating the random distribution of parasites in this system when the majority of macroparasites exhibit non-random patterns? We hypothesise that tight density-dependent processes constrain parasite establishment and survival, preventing the build-up of parasites within individual hosts, and preclude aggregation within the host population. We first conducted primary infections in a laboratory experiment using white-footed mice to test for density-dependent parasite establishment and survival of adult worms. Secondary or challenge infection experiments were then conducted to investigate underlying mechanisms, including intra-specific competition and host-mediated restrictions (i.e. acquired immunity). The results of our experimental infections show a dose-dependent constraint on within-host-parasite establishment, such that the proportion of mice infected rose initially with exposure, and then dropped off at the highest dose. Additional evidence of density-dependent competition comes from the decrease in worm length with increasing levels of exposure. In the challenge infection experiment, previous exposure to parasites resulted in a lower prevalence and intensity of infection compared with primary infection of naïve mice; the magnitude of this effect was also density-dependent. Host immune response (IgG levels) increased with the level of exposure, but decreased with the number of worms established. Our results suggest that strong intra-specific competition and acquired host immunity operate in a density-dependent manner to constrain parasite establishment, driving down aggregation and ultimately accounting for the observed random distribution of parasites.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Infectious Diseases