sexual selection, parasites, fleas, ticks, lice, endoparasites, ectoparasites, reproductive success, grooming
Vertebrate males frequently carry higher numbers of parasites than females. This bias in parasite loads could be a consequence of sexual selection. Grouping species are also assumed to be afflicted with larger numbers of parasites than solitary animals and associated costs of this parasitism could vary with group size or structure. I examined sex-biased parasitism and the influence of group size on parasite loads in Cape ground squirrels (Xerus inauris), a highly social species that occurs in the arid regions of southern Africa. Males carried three times as many ectoparasites as females, but females harbored nearly three times more endoparasites than males. Amount of time spent (per hour) autogrooming was similar between males and females, but amount time spent allogrooming by adult female was over eleven times that of adult males. Longer allogrooming of group members could be decreasing the numbers of ectoparasites of group members and ultimately the group. Males infrequently give or receive allogrooming and travel in very large home ranges, potentially increasing their exposure to ectoparasites. However, movement throughout a large home range may result in males foraging in areas with lower densities of fecal pellets, which could explain the lower endoparasite loads observed in males. When I considered the age class of group members, female age classes were similarly parasitized but male age classes were not. Sub-adult males carried similar ectoparasite loads to adult males and similar endoparasite loads to adult females. This result is of particular interest because sub-adult males are becoming scrotal but typically remain in the group until adulthood. Sexual selection does appear to influence parasite loads in this species, and parasite removal or avoidance potentially mitigates individual parasite loads and their associated costs. Parasites can be detrimental to the health, longevity, and reproduction of their hosts, but these costs are rarely quantified. I removed ectoparasites and endoparasites from Cape ground squirrels for three months and evaluated changes in female body mass, reproduction, burrow use, and grooming in response to parasite removal. Female body mass did not increase with parasite removal, but reproductive success (per capita offspring raised to emergence) increased nearly four-fold, while allogrooming by treated females decreased. Since breeding is highest in the late winter dry season when fewer resources are available, the impact of parasites may be highest during this season. Lactation and gestation are the most physiological stressful processes that females undergo, and the dramatic increase in reproductive success in treated females suggests that these females are able to allocate more resources to reproduction than females afflicted with parasites. These results suggest that studies investigating reproduction and fecundity must consider the vulnerability of the host to parasite infection and the potential impact on reproductive success.
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Master of Science (M.S.)
College of Sciences
Length of Campus-only Access
Masters Thesis (Open Access)
Hillegass, Melissa Ann, "Sex-biased Parasitism And The Reproductive Costs Of Parasites In A Social African Ground Squirrel" (2007). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 3202.