Royal Society Publishing

How parasites can promote the expression of social behaviour in their hosts

Sean O'Donnell


Recent theory on the role of parasites in the evolution of social behaviour has emphasized the costs of social behaviour to hosts. However, parasites whose primary effect on host fitness is to reduce fecundity can favour the evolutionary origin or maintenance of social behaviour, including eusociality, under certain conditions. If the parasites are not readily transmitted among members of social groups, then other group members will not be selected to reject infected individuals as social partners, nor will adaptive suicide or avoidance of grouping be selectively favoured for infected individuals. Rather, total or partial parasitic castration may promote the expression of helping behaviour by infected individuals. Some parasites may therefore act to increase variance in direct reproductive value within populations or societies, and to promote reproductive division of labour. The necessary conditions of reduced host fecundity and low within–group transmission are met in some insect–parasite systems, and could occur in other host–parasite systems as well.

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