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Size and sex matter: infection dynamics of an invading parasite (the pentastome Raillietiella frenatus) in an invading host (the cane toad Rhinella marina)


Correlations between host phenotype and vulnerability to parasites can clarify the processes that enhance rates of parasitism, and the effects of parasites on their hosts. We studied an invasive parasite (the pentastome Raillietiella frenatus, subclass Pentastomida, order Cephalobaenida) infecting a new host (the invasive cane toad Rhinella marina), in tropical Australia. We dissected toads over a 27-month period to investigate seasonal changes in pentastome population dynamics and establish which aspects of host phenotype are related to infection. Pentastome prevalence and intensity varied seasonally; male toads were 4 times more likely to be infected than were females; and prevalence was highest in hosts of intermediate body size. The strong sex effect may reflect habitat or dietary divergence between the sexes, resulting in males encountering parasites more often. The relationship between pentastome prevalence and host size likely reflects a role for acquired immunity in preventing re-infection. Infection did not influence host body condition (fatbody size), suggesting that R. frenatus does not impose high energy costs in cane toads. Infected toads had heavier spleens (likely an immune response to infection) and larger testes (perhaps since reproductively active hosts have altered microhabitat use and/or immunocompetence) than did uninfected conspecifics. Although experimental studies are required to identify the causal bases of such patterns, our data confirm that infection status within a population can be strongly linked to host phenotypic traits.

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