Effects of ectoparasite infestation during pregnancy on physiological stress and reproductive output in a rodent-flea system

Elizabeth M. Warburton, Irina S. Khokhlova, Rupert Palme, Elena N. Surkova, Boris R. Krasnov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Biotic and abiotic stressors impose various fitness costs on individuals across a variety of taxa. In vertebrates, these stressors typically trigger complex neuroendocrine responses that stimulate glucocorticoid (GC) secretion from the adrenal cortex. Short-term elevation of GCs can be adaptive as it shifts energy toward physiological processes that cope with acute stressors; however, chronic increases in GC levels could have detrimental effects on fitness. Parasitism can be considered an important biotic stressor in nature and a possible cause of reproductive failure that could substantially affect an individual's fitness. Thus, we aimed to test the effects of parasitism and maternal stress, as measured by GCs, during pregnancy and the relationship between these variables and measures of reproductive output using a rodent-flea system. Female Egyptian spiny mice (Acomys cahirinus) were randomly assigned to flea (Parapulex chephrenis) infested or uninfested treatments before and during pregnancy. The offspring of these females were flea-free. Feces were collected at five time points during the experiment to determine maternal fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGCM) concentrations. Overall, infested females had lower FGCM levels during gestation but higher FGCM levels post-parturition and larger mass changes than uninfested females. Additionally, models related to pup quality and quantity often included some measure of maternal investment or body condition moderating relationships between infestation and stress. This suggests that flea parasitism or high GC levels alone might not significantly impact host reproduction but rather females can experience different effects depending on their level of investment, which could be limited by body condition and/or the number of pups present in a litter.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)659-666
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal for Parasitology
Issue number8
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2021


  • Acomys cahirinus
  • Fleas
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Parapulex chephrenis
  • Parasitism
  • Reproductive fitness
  • Spiny mice

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Parasitology
  • Infectious Diseases


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