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Prevalence of blood parasites in European passeriform birds

Alex Scheuerlein, Robert E. Ricklefs


Variation in the prevalence of blood parasites among species of birds has been used to test hypotheses about the effects of sexual selection and parental investment on disease resistance, and how vector abundance influences infection. However, the factors causing this variation are still poorly understood. We assessed the statistical effects of biogeographic, plumage–related and life–history traits on the prevalence of the blood parasites Plasmodium, Haemoproteus, Leucocytozoon and Trypanosoma in European passerine birds. Most of the variation in parasite prevalence occurred at low taxonomic levels. Brighter male plumage and greater host body mass were associated with higher prevalence, explaining 32% of the total variation. Male plumage brightness remained a significant factor when we controlled for phylogenetic effects. These relationships were driven primarily by simuliid–transmitted parasites (Leucocytozoon, Trypanosoma), which were more frequent in species with northern distributions. Host species with greater maximum longevity and shorter nestling periods had higher prevalences of Plasmodium; however, the effect was not stable after controlling for phylogeny using pairwise contrasts. Coevolution between hosts and parasites appears to create temporal and spatial variation that disconnects haematozoan prevalence from evolutionarily conservative life–history traits while creating some positive associations with traits that are phylogenetically labile. Clearly, ecologists should be cautious in relating patterns of variation in haematozoan prevalence to particular host traits.

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