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Keywords:

  • behavioural manipulation;
  • global climate change;
  • host-parasite interactions;
  • Schistocephalus solidus;
  • sticklebacks;
  • temperature

Abstract

Elevated environmental temperatures associated with anthropogenic warming have the potential to impact host-parasite interactions, with consequences for population health and ecosystem functioning. One way that elevated temperatures might influence parasite prevalence and intensity is by increasing life cycle completion rates. Here, we investigate how elevated temperatures impact a critical phase of the life cycle of the bird tapeworm Schistocephalus solidus – the growth of plerocercoid larvae in host fish (three-spined sticklebacks Gasterosteus aculeatus). By 8 weeks post-infection, plerocercoids recovered from experimentally infected sticklebacks held at 20 °C weighed on average 104.9 mg, with all exceeding 50 mg, the mass considered consistently infective to definitive hosts. In contrast, plerocercoids from sticklebacks held at 15 °C weighed on average 26.5 mg, with none exceeding 50 mg. As small increases in plerocercoid mass affect adult fecundity disproportionately in this species, enhanced plerocercoid growth at higher temperatures predicts dramatically increased output of infective parasite stages. Subsequent screening of thermal preferences of sticklebacks from a population with endemic S. solidus infection demonstrated that fish harbouring infective plerocercoids show significant preferences for warmer temperatures. Our results therefore indicate that parasite transmission might be affected in at least two ways under anthropogenic warming; by enhancing rates of parasite growth and development, and by increasing the likelihood of hosts being able to seek out proliferating warmer microhabitats. Furthermore, our results suggest the potential for positive feedback between parasite growth and host thermal preferences, which could dramatically increase the effects of even small temperature increases. We discuss the possible mechanisms underpinning our results, their likely ecological consequences and highlight key areas for further research.