Control of emerging infectious diseases often hinges on identifying a pathogen reservoir, the source of disease transmission. The potential to function as a pathogen reservoir can be influenced by host lifespan, geographic provenance and phylogeny. Yet, no study has identified factors that causally determine the reservoir potential of diverse host species. We propose the host physiological phenotype hypothesis, which predicts that hosts with short-lived, poorly defended, nutrient rich and high metabolism tissue have greater values for three epidemiological parameters that determine reservoir potential: host susceptibility to infection, competence to infect vectors and ability to support vector populations. We experimentally tested these predictions using a generalist vectored virus and six wild grass species. Host physiological phenotype explained why hosts differed in all three epidemiological parameters while host lifespan, provenance and phylogeny could not explain host competence. Thus, a single, general axis describing variation in host physiological phenotype may explain reservoir potential.