Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 47–51
Gerbilline rodents such as Allenby’s gerbils (Gerbillus andersoni allenbyi), when parasitized by fleas such as Synosternus cleopatrae pyramidis, devote long hours of grooming to remove the ectoparasites. Yet no detrimental energetic or immunological effects of the ectoparasites have been found in adult Allenby’s gerbil. Why should gerbils go to such trouble? We tested for the various ways that fleas can negatively affect gerbils by manipulating flea infestation on gerbils and the presence of a fox. We demonstrate that gerbils responded to fleas by leaving resource patches at higher giving-up densities. Furthermore, they stayed in those resource patches less time and left them at higher quitting harvest rates so long as a fox was also present. When flea-ridden, gerbils also abandoned using vigilance to manage risk and relied mainly on time allocation. Thus, having fleas imposed a foraging cost similar in nature to that arising from the risk of predation from foxes and may be even larger in magnitude. More than that, the presence of fleas acted as a magnifier of foraging costs, especially those arising from the risk of predation. The fleas reduced the gerbils’ foraging aptitude and altered how they went about managing risk of predation. We hypothesize that fleas reduce the attention that gerbils otherwise have for foraging and predator detection. We suggest that this is the major cost of ectoparasitism.