Linking manipulative experiments to field data to test the dilution effect



  1. The dilution effect, the hypothesis that biodiversity reduces disease risk, has received support in many systems. However, few dilution effect studies have linked mechanistic experiments to field patterns to establish both causality and ecological relevance.
  2. We conducted a series of laboratory experiments and tested the dilution effect hypothesis in an amphibian-Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) system and tested for consistency between our laboratory experiments and field patterns of amphibian species richness, host identity and Bd prevalence.
  3. In our laboratory experiments, we show that tadpoles can filter feed Bd zoospores and that the degree of suspension feeding was positively associated with their dilution potential. The obligate suspension feeder, Gastrophryne carolinensis, generally diluted the risk of chytridiomycosis for tadpoles of Bufo terrestris and Hyla cinerea, whereas tadpoles of B. terrestris (an obligate benthos feeder) generally amplified infections for the other species. In addition, G. carolinensis reduced Bd abundance on H. cinerea more so in the presence than absence of B. terrestris and B. terrestris amplified Bd abundance on H. cinerea more so in the absence than presence of G. carolinensis. Also, when ignoring species identity, species richness was a significant negative predictor of Bd abundance.
  4. In our analysis of field data, the presence of Bufo spp. and Gastrophryne spp. were significant positive and negative predictors of Bd prevalence, respectively, even after controlling for climate, vegetation, anthropogenic factors (human footprint), species richness and sampling effort. These patterns of dilution and amplification supported our laboratory findings, demonstrating that the results are likely ecologically relevant.
  5. The results from our laboratory and field data support the dilution effect hypothesis and also suggest that dilution and amplification are predictable based on host traits. Our study is among the first to link manipulative experiments, in which a potential dilution mechanism is supported, with analyses of field data on species richness, host identity, spatial autocorrelation and disease prevalence.