1. Individuals that live in groups benefit from increased foraging success and decreased predation. Protection from some types of parasites may provide an additional benefit of group-living. For fish, the extent to which shoaling can reduce an individual's risk of exposure to the infective stages of parasites is unknown.
2. We tested for antiparasite benefits of shoaling in fathead minnows exposed to larvae (cercariae) of two of their most common species of trematode, Ornithodiplostomum ptychocheilus and Posthodiplostomum minimum. As developing stages (metacercariae) of these trematodes cause reductions in minnow activity, growth and survival, natural selection should favour the evolution of cercariae-avoidance behaviours.
3. We evaluated shoal dimensions in groups of minnows exposed to O. ptychocheilus and to other chemical/physical stimuli within aquaria. To compare risk of exposure in shoaling vs. non-shoaling fish, we confined groups of minnows into mesh cages in outdoor mesocosms, exposed them to cercariae, then compared mean worm numbers in grouped vs. solitary fish. Lastly, we tested whether fish located within the centre of an artificial shoal reduced their risk of cercariae exposure compared with those along peripheral edges.
4. Minnows distinguished infective cercariae from other potential aquatic threats and responded with activity that reduced the 2-dimensional area of their shoals 15-fold compared with water-only controls. Fish confined within artificial shoals had 3-fold fewer worms than single fish and minnows located within the centre of artificial shoals had significantly fewer worms than those without peripheral minnows.
5. These results show that shoaling reduces a minnows' risk of exposure to cercariae, either directly via detection of cercariae in the water column followed by behavioural avoidance or indirectly via behaviour-mediated differences in exposure between shoaling vs. non-shoaling fish.