Divergent host phenotypes create opportunities and constraints on the distribution of two wing-dwelling feather mites


S. Fernández-González, Depto de Zoología y Antropología Física, Univ. Complutense de Madrid, ES-28040 Madrid, Spain. E-mail: sofia.fernandez@bio.ucm.es


The diversity of symbionts (commensals, mutualists or parasites) that share the same host species may depend on opportunities and constraints on host exploitation associated with host phenotype or environment. Various host traits may differently influence host accessibility and within-host population growth of each symbiont species, or they may determine the outcome of within-host interactions among coexisting species. In turn, phenotypic diversity of a host species may promote divergent exploitation strategies among its symbiotic organisms. We studied the distribution of two feather mite species, Proctophyllodes sylviae and Trouessartia bifurcata, among blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla wintering in southern Spain during six winters. The host population included migratory and sedentary individuals, which were unequally distributed between two habitat types (forests and shrublands). Visual mite counts showed that both mite species often coexisted on sedentary blackcaps, but were seldom found together on migratory blackcaps. Regardless of host habitat, Proctophyllodes were highly abundant and Trouessartia were scarce on migratory blackcaps, but the abundance of both mite species converged in intermediate levels on sedentary blackcaps. Coexistence may come at a cost for Proctophyllodes, whose load decreased when Trouessartia was present on the host (the opposite was not true). Proctophyllodes load was positively correlated with host wing length (wings were longer in migratory blackcaps), while Trouessartia load was positively correlated to uropygial gland size (sedentary blackcaps had bigger glands), which might render migratory and sedentary blackcaps better hosts for Proctophyllodes and Trouessartia, respectively. Our results draw a complex scenario for mite co-existence in the same host species, where different mite species apparently take advantage of, or are constrained by, divergent host phenotypic traits. This expands our understanding of bird–mite interactions, which are usually viewed as less dynamic in relation to variation in host phenotype, and emphasizes the role of host phenotypic divergence in the diversification of symbiotic organisms.