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Optimal infection strategies: should macroparasites hedge their bets?


  • A. Fenton,

  • P. J. Hudson

A. Fenton and P. J. Hudson, Inst. of Biological Sciences, Univ. of Stirling, Stirling, UK FK9 4LA (


Despite considerable research into the mechanisms that lead to the persistence of parasites, the huge diversity of macroparasite transmission strategies observed both within and among species has yet to be explained. This may be because questions of parasite persistence are typically addressed at the population level, even though observed transmission rates are determined by infection events at the level of the individual parasite. To help overcome this disparity, a simple model is developed to explore the optimal infection strategy for a macroparasite under a range of selection pressures. The model calculates the fitness of the parasite by considering explicitly the probability of the individual infective stages surviving and infecting. The optimal strategy is highly sensitive to the rate of host availability and, considering the parasite's fitness, it is often preferable to have sub-maximal infectivity to maximise survival during periods of host absence. An important finding is that when parasites are faced with unpredictable conditions such as the time of host availability, the optimum strategy may be to produce offspring that differ in their infection strategies. By spreading the risk in this way, known as bet hedging, parasites can increase the chances that at least some of their offspring will infect successfully. This potential for variation in infection strategies has not been considered explicitly before and may have wide reaching implications for current epidemiology theory.