Induced responses of nestling great tits reduce hen flea reproduction


  • Mirjam Walker,

  • Susanne Steiner,

  • Martin W. G. Brinkhof,

  • Heinz Richner

M. Walker, S. Steiner, M. W. G. Brinkhof and H. Richner, Division of Evolutionary Ecology, Inst. of Zoology, Univ. of Bern, Baltzerstrasse 6, CH-3012 Bern, Schwitzerland. Present address for MW: Inst. of Parasitology, Univ. of Bern, Länggass-Strasse 122, CH-3012 Bern, Schwitzerland. Present address for MWGB: Div. of Evolutionary Ecology, Inst. of Zoology, Wohlenstrasse 50a, CH-3032 Hinterkappelen, Schwitzerland (


The dynamics of host–parasite interactions depend to a large extent on the effect of host responses on parasite fitness. Exposure to parasites may induce behavioural or physiological responses in hosts that may reduce the subsequent survival or reproductive output of the parasite. Neonate hosts may further directly obtain immunologically active substances from their mother, for instance via milk in mammals or egg yolk in birds. However, the relative importance of maternally-derived and self-generated responses in inducing parasite resistance is poorly understood, especially in free-living vertebrates. Here we investigate the complementary effect of experimentally induced maternal and neonate responses in great tit (Parus major) hosts on the reproductive success of their common ectoparasite, the hen flea (Ceratophyllus gallinae). In the laboratory we measured the number of eggs and larvae produced by individual flea females collected from host nests. In addition, the total number of larvae produced by an experimentally set number of flea females in the host's nestbox was assessed under field conditions. There was no indication of maternally-transferred parasite resistance, since exposing the mother to fleas during the laying period did not affect the reproductive rate of fleas exploiting her offspring early or late in the nestling cycle. Independent of the maternal treatment, exposure of neonates to fleas early in the nestling period reduced the reproductive output of fleas late in the nestling cycle. The effect of the induced nestling response was seasonal, reducing flea reproduction in nests of early-breeding hosts but not in nests of late-breeding ones. Larvae production in the nestbox and in the laboratory was positively correlated, but under natural conditions the neonate response did not affect the size of the flea larvae population. Our results indicate induced responses as a means by which neonate avian hosts resist ectoparasites. Other factors, such as the environmental temperature and density-dependent larval competition, may be more important in determining the size of the future parasite populations.