Virulence of parasites in hosts under environmental stress: experiments with anoxia and starvation

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Most environments periodically impose severe stress that may cause high mortality and alter population structure, for example, by removing sick and old individuals. We examined how anoxic conditions and starvation of the host affect virulence of two closely related trematode parasites, Rhipidocotyle campanula and R. fennica. These parasites differ by prevalence of infection and by exploitation rate of individual hosts (freshwater clam, Anodonta piscinalis). Infection by R. campanula is rare (<5% prevalence of infection) and destroys on average 90% of the gonad tissue of the individual host. Infection by R. fennica is more common (20–60% prevalence of infection) and leads to on average 30% gonad destruction. In the end, both infections lead to host infertility. We predicted that R. campanula induces higher host mortality than R. fennica under host stress. In two laboratory experiments, we exposed naturally-infected and uninfected clams to anoxia and to starvation. Anoxia occasionally takes place during winter in eutrophic lakes, while some degree of starvation should occur seasonally. We found that mortality rate of clams was much higher under anoxia than under starvation, and that infection increased mortality rate under both types of host stress. As predicted, R. campanula induced higher host mortality than R. fennica. Host survival was population-specific, suggesting that clams of different origins carried different amount of energy reserves. Severe environmental perturbation may remove R. campanula infected individuals from the host population, but recolonization from the fish host is likely to prevent extinction of the parasite suprapopulation. The observed high host mortality induced by R. campanula may be one ecological explanation for the consistently lower prevalence of infection of R. campanula when compared to R. fennica.

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