Hammerschmidt and colleagues (2009) recently published an empirical investigation of optimal host switching. Parasites that must infect multiple hosts to complete their life cycle face a complex set of challenges. One of these is determining the timing of the switch. The authors of this paper look at the trade-off involved in staying in an intermediate host so as to become larger and more fecund in the next host and the increased chance of mortality in the current host. The authors conduct two different experiments with a tapeworm parasite, Schistocephalus solidus. In one experiment they examined the behavior of the first intermediate host, cyclopoid copepods (Macrocyclops albidus). In the second experiment they directly measured differences in fecundity among different host switch timing between the first and second intermediate hosts (in this case the three-spine stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus). The authors also build an optimality model and use the data from these experiments as well as some previously published data to confirm that the switch from the first to second host occurs at an optimal time for parasite fecundity.
What was most novel about this paper to me was the modification of the host behavior that had the effect of reducing parasite transmission, at least in the short run. Since the parasite was transmitted trophically, the next host eats the previous host, predation enhancement or avoidance directly influences the rate of transmission. The authors found some evidence of predation enhancement after the optimal switch time, but the stronger evidence was at least a shift in behavior of the current host. Before the parasite is mature in the first intermediate host, or before the optimal switching time to the second intermediate host, there was a reduction in movement which translates into predator avoidance behavior. Manipulating the host so as to allow the parasite a longer time to grow is a very clever strategy. In hosts that have a high potential mortality, this strategy may be found among a diversity of trophically transmitted parasites.
Hammerschmidt, K., K. Koch, M. Milinski, J. C. Chubb, and G. A. Parker. 2009. When to go: Optimization of host switching in parasites with complex life cycles. Evolution 63:1976-1986.
Hammerschmidt, K., Koch, K., Milinski, M., Chubb, J., & Parker, G. (2009). Whe to go: Optimzation of host switching in parasites with complex life cycles Evolution, 63 (8), 1976-1986 DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00687.x