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The influence of a parasite community on the dynamics of a host population: a longitudinal study on willow ptarmigan and their parasites


  • P. R. Holmstad,

  • P. J. Hudson,

  • A. Skorping

P. R. Holmstad and A. Skorping Dept of Biology, Univ. of Bergen, Realfagbygget, Allégaten 41, NO-5007 Bergen, Norway ( – P. J. Hudson, Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, Mueller Lab., Penn State Univ., PA 16802, USA.


Despite the fact that most host populations are infected by a community of different parasite species, the majority of empirical studies have focused on the interaction between the host and a single parasite species. Here, we explore the hypothesis that host population dynamics are affected both by single parasite species and by the whole parasite community. We monitored population density and breeding productivity of two populations of willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) in northern Norway for 8 and 11 years, respectively, and sampled eukaryotic endoparasites. We found that increasing abundances of the cestode Hymenolepis microps was associated with increased breeding mortality and reduced annual growth rate of the host population in both areas, and reduced host body mass and body condition in the area where such data were available. In one of the areas, the abundance of the nematode Trichostrongylus tenuis was associated with reductions in host body mass, body condition and breeding mortality and the filaroid nematode Splendidofilaria papillocerca was negatively related to host population growth rates. The parasite community was also negatively related to host fitness parameters, suggesting an additional community effect on host body mass and breeding mortality, although none of the parasites had a significant impact on their own. The prevalence of parasites with very different taxonomical origins tended to covary within years, suggesting that variability in the parasite community was not random, but governed by changes in host susceptibility or environmental conditions that affected exposure to parasites in general. Other variables including climate, plant production and rodent densities were not associated with the recorded demographic changes in the host population.