1. Describing and explaining the structure of species interaction networks is of paramount importance for community ecology. Yet much has to be learned about the mechanisms responsible for major patterns, such as nestedness and modularity in different kinds of systems, of which large and diverse networks are a still underrepresented and scarcely studied fraction.
2. We assembled information on fishes and their parasites living in a large floodplain of key ecological importance for freshwater ecosystems in the Paraná River basin in South America. The resulting fish–parasite network containing 72 and 324 species of fishes and parasites, respectively, was analysed to investigate the patterns of nestedness and modularity as related to fish and parasite features.
3. Nestedness was found in the entire network and among endoparasites, multiple-host life cycle parasites and native hosts, but not in networks of ectoparasites, single-host life cycle parasites and non-native fishes. All networks were significantly modular. Taxonomy was the major host’s attribute influencing both nestedness and modularity: more closely related host species tended to be associated with more nested parasite compositions and had greater chance of belonging to the same network module. Nevertheless, host abundance had a positive relationship with nestedness when only native host species pairs of the same network module were considered for analysis.
4. These results highlight the importance of evolutionary history of hosts in linking patterns of nestedness and formation of modules in the network. They also show that functional attributes of parasites (i.e. parasitism mode and life cycle) and origin of host populations (i.e. natives versus non-natives) are crucial to define the relative contribution of these two network properties and their dependence on other ecological factors (e.g. host abundance), with potential implications for community dynamics and stability.