“Parasite-induced aposematism” protects entomopathogenic nematode parasites against invertebrate enemies

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Aposematism is a well-known strategy in which prey defend themselves from predation by pairing defenses such as toxins, with warning signals that are often visually conspicuous color patterns. Here, we examine the possibility that aposematism can be induced in a host by colonies of infectious parasites in order to protect the parasites from the consequences of attacks on the host. Earlier studies show that avian predators are reluctant to feed on carcasses of host prey that are infected with the entomopathogenic nematode, Heterorhabditis bacteriophora. As the age of infection increases, the parasites kill and preserve the host and subsequently cause its color to change, becoming bright pink then red. Nematode colonies in dead hosts may also be vulnerable, however, to nocturnally active foragers that do not use vision in prey detection. Here, then we test a novel hypothesis that the nematode parasites also produce a warning odor, which functions to repel nocturnally active predators (in this case, the beetle Pterostichus madidus). We show that beetles decrease their feeding on infected insect prey as the age of infection increases and that olfactory cues associated with the infections are effective mechanisms for deterring beetle predation, even at very early stages of infection. We propose that “parasite-induced aposematism” from the nematodes serves to replace the antipredator defenses of the recently killed host. Because sessile carcasses are exposed to a greater range of predators than the live hosts, several alternative defense mechanisms are required to protect the colony, hence aposematic signals are likely diverse in such “parasite-induced aposematism.”

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