Ontogenetic changes in heterogeneity of parasite communities of fish: disentangling the relative role of compositional versus abundance variability

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Abstract

SUMMARY

In order to determine how much of the variability in parasite assemblages is driven by differences in composition or in abundance we used multivariate dispersions (average distance from infracommunities to their size class centroid in the multivariate space) as a measurement of β-diversity in infracommunities of Conger orbignianus, applying a set of dissimilarity measures with different degrees of emphasis on composition versus relative abundance information. To evaluate comparatively the rate of such changes, we also analysed the effect of host size by regressing differences in β-diversity among size classes against differences in mean fish size. Multivariate dispersions varied along an ontogenetic gradient, its significance depending on the measurement used. Larger fish showed higher richness and abundance; however, smaller fish displayed lower variations in abundance but higher in composition. This could be caused by stochastic encounters at low densities due to the overdispersion of parasites in previous hosts. As fish grow, the composition of their parasite assemblages becomes homogenized by repeated exposure, with abundance thus arising as the main source of variability. Both variables act at different rates, with the exponential decay in the compositional variability as differences in fish size increase being about twice as steep as the decay in abundance variability, indicating that compositional homogeneity is reached faster than abundance heterogeneity as fish grow. Discerning between both variables is crucial in order to understand how community structure is formed by size-dependent variability of host populations.

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