Ectoparasites cause increased bilateral asymmetry of naturally selected traits in a colonial bird


Charles R. Brown, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Tulsa, Tulsa, OK 74104, USA. Tel.: 918-631-3943; fax: 918-631-2762; e-mail:


Abstract Parasitism has been shown to correlate with levels of bilateral symmetry in some organisms, with more asymmetric individuals often having more parasites. However, few studies have shown experimentally that parasitism directly causes increased asymmetry. By fumigating some cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) colonies and leaving others untreated, we investigated experimentally whether ectoparasitism by the cimicid swallow bug led to higher levels of asymmetry in length of wings, outer tail feathers, and tarsus among juvenile and adult birds. Juveniles from fumigated colonies measured soon after fledging had significantly less asymmetry in wing and outer tail length than juveniles from nonfumigated colonies; asymmetry in tarsus length was unaffected by parasitism. Adults that had undergone one or more post-juvenal molts on the wintering grounds showed no differences in asymmetry between those reared in fumigated vs. nonfumigated colonies. These results show that ectoparasitism directly leads to increased feather asymmetry in cliff swallows, probably through parasite-induced nutritional stress. Because wing and tail asymmetry impair flight performance and reduce foraging efficiency, the increased asymmetry caused by parasites represents a fitness cost to cliff swallows. This is among the few experimental studies to show an effect of parasites on asymmetry of naturally selected characters.