Ecology Letters (2009) 12: 1306–1316
Theory suggests that spatial structuring should select for intermediate levels of virulence in parasites, but empirical tests are rare and have never been conducted with castration (sterilizing) parasites. To test this theory in a natural landscape, we construct a spatially explicit model of the symbiosis between the ant-plant Cordia nodosa and its two, protecting ant symbionts, Allomerus and Azteca. Allomerus is also a castration parasite, preventing fruiting to increase colony fecundity. Limiting the dispersal of Allomerus and host plant selects for intermediate castration virulence. Increasing the frequency of the mutualist, Azteca, selects for higher castration virulence in Allomerus, because seeds from Azteca-inhabited plants are a public good that Allomerus exploits. These results are consistent with field observations and, to our knowledge, provide the first empirical evidence supporting the hypothesis that spatial structure can reduce castration virulence and the first such evidence in a natural landscape for either mortality or castration virulence.