Life history and virulence are linked in the ectoparasitic salmon louse Lepeophtheirus salmonis


Adele Mennerat, Edward Grey Institute, Department of Zoology, Oxford University, South Parks Road, Oxford OX13PS, UK.
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Models of virulence evolution for horizontally transmitted parasites often assume that transmission rate (the probability that an infected host infects a susceptible host) and virulence (the increase in host mortality due to infection) are positively correlated, because higher rates of production of propagules may cause more damages to the host. However, empirical support for this assumption is scant and limited to microparasites. To fill this gap, we explored the relationships between parasite life history and virulence in the salmon louse, Lepeophtheirus salmonis, a horizontally transmitted copepod ectoparasite on Atlantic salmon Salmo salar. In the laboratory, we infected juvenile salmon hosts with equal doses of infective L. salmonis larvae and monitored parasite age at first reproduction, parasite fecundity, area of damage caused on the skin of the host, and host weight and length gain. We found that earlier onset of parasite reproduction was associated with higher parasite fecundity. Moreover, higher parasite fecundity (a proxy for transmission rate, as infection probability increases with higher numbers of parasite larvae released to the water) was associated with lower host weight gain (correlated with lower survival in juvenile salmon), supporting the presence of a virulence–transmission trade-off. Our results are relevant in the context of increasing intensive farming, where frequent anti-parasite drug use and increased host density may have selected for faster production of parasite transmission stages, via earlier reproduction and increased early fecundity. Our study highlights that salmon lice, therefore, are a good model for studying how human activity may affect the evolution of parasite virulence.