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Diversity and disease: community structure drives parasite transmission and host fitness

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*E-mail: pieter.johnson@colorado.edu

Abstract

Changes in host diversity and community structure have been linked to disease, but the mechanisms underlying such relationships and their applicability to non-vector-borne disease systems remain conjectural. Here we experimentally investigated how changes in host community structure affected the transmission and pathology of the multi-host parasite Ribeiroia ondatrae, which is a widespread cause of amphibian limb deformities. We exposed larval amphibians to parasites in monospecific or heterospecific communities, and varied host number to differentiate between density- and diversity-mediated effects on transmission. In monospecific communities, exposure to Ribeiroia significantly increased mortality (15%), malformations (40%) and time-to-metamorphosis in toads. However, the presence of tree frogs significantly reduced infection in toads, leading to fewer malformations and higher survival than observed in monospecific communities, providing evidence of parasite-mediated facilitation. Our results suggest that interspecific variation in parasite resistance can inhibit parasite transmission in multi-species communities, reducing infection and pathology in sensitive hosts.

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