Parasite transmission is determined by the rate of contact between a susceptible host and an infective stage and susceptibility to infection given an exposure event. Attempts to measure levels of variation in exposure in natural populations can be especially challenging. The level of exposure to a major class of parasites, trophically transmitted parasites, can be estimated by investigating the host's feeding behaviour. Since the parasites rely on the ingestion of infective intermediate hosts for transmission, the potential for exposure to infection is inherently linked to the definitive host's feeding ecology. Here, we combined epidemiological data and molecular analyses (polymerase chain reaction) of the diet of the definitive host, the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), to investigate temporal and individual heterogeneities in exposure to infection. Our results show that the consumption of cricket intermediate hosts accounted for much of the variation in infection; mice that had consumed crickets were four times more likely to become infected than animals that tested negative for cricket DNA. In particular, pregnant female hosts were three times more likely to consume crickets, which corresponded to a threefold increase in infection compared with nonpregnant females. Interestingly, males in breeding condition had a higher rate of infection even though breeding males were just as likely to test positive for cricket consumption as nonbreeding males. These results suggest that while heterogeneity in host diet served as a strong predictor of exposure risk, differential susceptibility to infection may also play a key role, particularly among male hosts. By combining PCR analyses with epidemiological data, we revealed temporal variation in exposure through prey consumption and identified potentially important individual heterogeneities in parasite transmission.
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