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Comparative host–parasite population structures: disentangling prospecting and dispersal in the black-legged kittiwake Rissa tridactyla


Karen D. McCoy, Génétique et Evolution des Maladies Infectieuses, UMR 2724 CNRS — IRD, IRD, 911 Avenue Agropolis, B.P. 64501, 34394 Montpellier, France. Fax: (33)4 67 41 62 99; E-mail:


Although much insight is to be gained through the comparison of the population genetic structures of parasites and hosts, there are, at present, few studies that take advantage of the information on vertebrate life histories available through the consideration of their parasites. Here, we examined the genetic structure of a colonial seabird, the black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) using seven polymorphic microsatellite markers to make inferences about population functioning and intercolony dispersal. We sampled kittiwakes from 22 colonies across the species’ range and, at the same time, collected individuals of one of its common ectoparasites, the tick Ixodes uriae. Parasites were genotyped at eight microsatellite markers and the population genetic structure of host and parasite were compared. Kittiwake populations are only genetically structured at large spatial scales and show weak patterns of isolation by distance. This may be due to long-distance dispersal events that erase local patterns of population subdivision. However, important additional information is gained by comparing results with those of the parasite. In particular, tick populations are strongly structured at regional scales and show a stepping-stone pattern of gene flow. Due to the parasite's life history, its population structure is directly linked to the frequency and spatial extent of within-breeding season movements of kittiwakes. The comparison of host and parasite gene flow therefore helps us to disentangle the intercolony movements of birds from that of true dispersal events (movement followed by reproduction). In addition, such data can provide essential elements for predicting the outcome of local co-evolutionary interactions.