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Keywords:

  • Entomopathogen;
  • interspecific competition;
  • intraspecific competition;
  • Metarhizium anisopliae;
  • mixed infection;
  • Steinernema feltiae

Understanding the reasons why different parasites cause different degrees of harm to their hosts is an important objective in evolutionary biology. One group of models predicts that if hosts are infected with more than one strain or species of parasite, then competition between the parasites will select for higher virulence. While this idea makes intuitive sense, empirical data to support it are rare and equivocal. We investigated the relationship between fitness and virulence during both inter- and intraspecific competition for a fungal parasite of insects, Metarhizium anisopliae. Contrary to theoretical expectations, competition favored parasite strains with either a lower or a higher virulence depending on the competitor: when in interspecific competition with an entomopathogenic nematode, Steinernema feltiae, less virulent strains of the fungus were more successful, but when competing against conspecific fungi, more virulent strains were better competitors. We suggest that the nature of competition (direct via toxin production when competing against the nematode, indirect via exploitation of the host when competing against conspecific fungal strains) determines the relationship between virulence and competitive ability.