What determines species richness of parasitic organisms? A meta-analysis across animal, plant and fungal hosts



Although a small set of external factors account for much of the spatial variation in plant and animal diversity, the search continues for general drivers of variation in parasite species richness among host species. Qualitative reviews of existing evidence suggest idiosyncrasies and inconsistent predictive power for all proposed determinants of parasite richness. Here, we provide the first quantitative synthesis of the evidence using a meta-analysis of 62 original studies testing the relationship between parasite richness across animal, plant and fungal hosts, and each of its four most widely used presumed predictors: host body size, host geographical range size, host population density, and latitude. We uncover three universal predictors of parasite richness across host species, namely host body size, geographical range size and population density, applicable regardless of the taxa considered and independently of most aspects of study design. A proper match in the primary studies between the focal predictor and both the spatial scale of study and the level at which parasite species richness was quantified (i.e. within host populations or tallied across a host species' entire range) also affected the magnitude of effect sizes. By contrast, except for a couple of indicative trends in subsets of the full dataset, there was no strong evidence for an effect of latitude on parasite species richness; where found, this effect ran counter to the general latitude gradient in diversity, with parasite species richness tending to be higher further from the equator. Finally, the meta-analysis also revealed a negative relationship between the magnitude of effect sizes and the year of publication of original studies (i.e. a time-lag bias). This temporal bias may be due to the increasing use of phylogenetic correction in comparative analyses of parasite richness over time, as this correction yields more conservative effect sizes. Overall, these findings point to common underlying processes of parasite diversification fundamentally different from those controlling the diversity of free-living organisms.