Scale-dependence of phylogenetic signal in ecological traits of ectoparasites


  • Boris R. Krasnov,

  • Robert Poulin,

  • David Mouillot

B. R. Krasnov (, Mitrani Dept of Desert Ecology, Inst. for Dryland Environmental Research, Jacob Blaustein Inst. for Desert Research, Ben-Gurion Univ. of the Negev, Sede Boqer Campus, 84990 Midreshet Ben-Gurion, Israel. – R. Poulin, Dept of Zoology, Univ. of Otago, P.O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand. – D. Mouillot, UMR CNRS-UMII 5119 Ecosystemes Lagunaires, Univ. Montpellier II, CC093, FR-34095 Montpellier Cedex 5, France.


The non-independence of traits among closely related species is a well-documented phenomenon underpinning modern methods for comparative analyses or prediction of trait values in new species. Surprisingly such studies have mainly focused on life-history or morphological traits of free-living organisms, ignoring ecological attributes of parasite species in spite of the fact that they are critical for conservation and human health. We tested for a phylogenetic signal acting on two ecological traits, abundance and host specificity, using data for 218 flea species parasitic on small mammals in 19 regions of the Palaearctic and Nearctic, and a phylogenetic tree for these species. We tested for the presence of a phylogenetic signal at both regional and continental scales using three measures (Abouheif/Moran's I, Pagel's λ, and Blomberg et al.'s K). Our results show 1) a consistent positive phylogenetic signal for flea abundance, but only a weaker and erratic signal for host specificity, and 2) a clear dependence on scale, with the signals being stronger at the continental scale and relatively weaker or inconsistent at the regional scale. Whenever values of Blomberg et al.'s K were found significant, they were <1 suggesting that the effects of phylogeny on the evolution of abundance and host specificity in fleas are weaker than expected from a Brownian motion model. The most striking finding is that, within a continental fauna, closely-related flea species are characterized by similar levels of abundance, though this pattern is weaker within local assemblages, possibly eroded by local biotic or abiotic conditions. We discuss the link between history (represented by phylogeny) and pattern of variation among species in morphological and ecological traits, and use comparisons between the Palaearctic and Nearctic to infer a role of historical events in the probability of detecting phylogenetic signals.