Opportunistic parasite species, capable of exploiting several different host species, do not achieve the same abundance on all these hosts. Parasites achieve maximum abundance on their principal host species, and lower abundances on their auxiliary host species. Taxonomic relatedness between the principal and auxiliary host species may determine what abundance a parasite can achieve on its auxiliary hosts, as relatedness should reflect similarities among host species in ecological, physiological and/or immunological characters. We tested this hypothesis with fleas (Siphonaptera) parasitic on small Holarctic mammals. We determined whether the abundance of a flea in its auxiliary hosts decreases with increasing taxonomic distance of these hosts from the principal host. Using data on 106 flea species from 23 regions, for a total of 194 flea-locality combinations, we found consistent support for this relationship, both within and across regions, and even after controlling for the potentially confounding effect of flea phylogeny. These results are most likely explained by a decrease in the efficiency of the parasite's evasive mechanisms against the host's behavioural and immune defences with increasing taxonomic distance from the principal host. Our findings suggest that host switching over evolutionary time may be severely constrained by the coupling of parasite success with the relatedness between new hosts and the original host.
- Auxiliary host
- Principal host