Can mite parasitism affect the condition of bat hosts? Implications for the social structure of colonial bats


Sofia I. Lourenço, Centro de Biologia Ambiental, Departamento de Biologia Animal, Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa, 1749-016 Lisboa, Portugal.


Ectoparasitism may be recognized as one of the main costs of coloniality, but little is known about how it affects the fitness and social structure of bats, the most gregarious of mammals. We studied these issues using the colonial bat Miniopterus schreibersii and its haematophagous parasitic mite Spinturnix psi as a model. Body condition is an important indicator of individual fitness that is potentially affected by ectoparasitism. Thus, we measured host body condition and mite loads in a total of 969 bats throughout the annual cycle. Mites were rare while hosts hibernated, increased in abundance in spring and peaked during nursing season of bats, when they were particularly abundant on lactating females and young bats. This strong seasonal variation in mite loads is related to the reproductive cycle of mites, which in turn appears to be synchronized with the reproductive cycle of their hosts. Mite loads and the condition of bats were negatively correlated, and information available suggests that this may be due to an effect of parasitism, although other possible causes for this trend cannot be excluded. However, a negative correlation was only observed during the bat's nursing season, when mites were most abundant, and heavily parasitized bats lost about 10% of their weight. Mite parasitism did not seem to be a significant disadvantage of coloniality, except in nurseries, where it might impose some costs. However, as females and young usually aggregate in these colonies, we presume that for them such costs are probably offset by advantages of group living. Adult males, however, are usually absent from nurseries, which may be a strategy to minimize mite parasitism. Overall, the results suggest that ectoparasitism may play a role in determining the social structure of M. schreibersii and of many other temperate bats that have similar life cycles and ectoparasitic loads.