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Can animals use foraging behaviour to combat parasites?

  • Michael R. Hutchings (a1), Spiridoula Athanasiadou (a1), Ilias Kyriazakis (a1) and Iain J. Gordon (a2)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 August 2008

Host-parasite interactions are often seen as an arms race, with parasites attempting to overcome host resistance to infection. Herbivory is a common route of transmission of parasites that represents the most pervasive challenge to mammalian growth and reproduction. The present paper reviews the foraging skills of mammalian herbivores in relation to their ability to exploit plant properties to combat parasites. The starting point is that foraging behaviour may ameliorate the impact of parasitism in three ways; hosts could: (1) avoid foraging in areas contaminated with parasites; (2) select diets which increase their resistance to parasites; (3) select for foods containing anti-parasitic properties (self-medication). Details are given of the pre-requisite skills needed by herbivores if they are to combat parasitism via behaviour, i.e. herbivores are able to: (a) determine their parasitic state and alter their behaviour in relation to that state (behaviours 1, 2 and 3); (b) determine the environmental distribution of parasites (behaviour 1); (c) distinguish plant species or plant parts that increase their resistance to parasites (behaviour 2) or have anti-parasitic properties (behaviour 3). Mammalian herbivores cannot detect the presence of the parasites themselves and must rely on cues such as faeces. Despite the use of these cues contacting parasites may be inevitable and so mechanisms to combat parasitism are necessary. Mammalian herbivores have the foraging skills needed to exploit the heterogeneous distributions of nutrients and parasites in complex foraging environments in order to avoid, and increase their resistance to, parasites. Current evidence for the use of plant secondary metabolites (PSM) by herbivores for self-medication purposes remains equivocal. PSM have both positive (anti-parasitic) and negative (toxic) effects on herbivores. Here details are given of an experimental approach using tri-trophic (plant-herbivore-parasite) interactions that could be used to demonstrate self-medication in animals. There is strong evidence suggesting that herbivore hosts have developed the foraging skills needed to take advantage of plant properties to combat parasites and thus use behaviour as a weapon in the host-parasite arms race.

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*Corresponding author: Dr M. Hutchings, fax +44 131 535 3121,
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