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Size versus health as a cue for host choice: a test of the tasty chick hypothesis

  • F. VALERA (a1), H. HOI (a2), A. DAROLOVÁ (a3) and J. KRISTOFIK (a3)

Abstract

Knowledge about how parasites choose their hosts is scarce and incomplete. Recent work has primarily focused on host health (i.e. immunocompetence) whereas ecological factors have been largely neglected. Here we investigate whether the immunocompetence, the nutritional condition or body size of nestling European bee-eaters Merops apiaster are used as parameters for habitat choice of the haematophagous fly Carnus hemapterus. We found that (i) flies consistently and non-randomly preferred larger nestlings, even after controlling for differences in habitat availability (host surface), (ii) in the presence of similar-sized hosts, parasites' choice for an individual was less likely than if hosts differed in size, (iii) the more the hosts differed in size, the more the parasites aggregated on the larger nestling and (iv) parasites changed their preference according to size criteria regardless of the identity of the larger host. Neither immunocompetence nor host body condition could account for parasites' preference. Our results do not support the prediction of the Tasty Chick Hypothesis, namely that the poor immunocompetence ability of junior chicks makes them more attractive to parasites. We conclude that basic ecological factors (e.g. body size) can be essential for parasites when choosing a host.

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Corresponding author

Estación Experimental de Zonas Áridas (CSIC), General Segura 1, E-04001 Almería, Spain. Tel: +34 950 281045. Fax: +34 950 277100. E-mail: pvalera@eeza.csic.es

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