A negative interspecific correlation between the degree of habitat specialization and the size of a species' geographic range has been documented for several free living groups of organisms, providing support for the niche breadth hypothesis. In contrast, practically nothing is known about the geographic range sizes of parasitic organisms and their determinants. In the context of the niche breadth hypothesis, parasites represent ideal study systems, because of the well documented variation in host specificity among parasite species. Here, we investigated the relationship between host specificity (a measure of niche breadth) and geographic range size among flea species parasitic on small mammals, using data from seven distinct geographical regions. Two measures of host specificity were used: the number of host species used by a flea species, and a measure of the average taxonomic distance between the host species used by a flea; the latter index provides an evolutionary perspective on host specificity. After correcting for phylogenetic influences, and using either of our two measures of host specificity, the degree of host specificity of fleas was negatively correlated with the size of their geographic range in all seven regions studied here, with only one minor exception. Overall, these results provide strong support for the niche breadth hypothesis, although other explanations cannot be ruled out.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics