Scientists uncover an unhealthy herds hypothesis

Jun 23, 2011
The predatory phantom midge larva, Chaoborus, hunts down the small aquatic crustacean, Daphnia dentifera. Credit: Alan J. Tessier

Biologists worldwide subscribe to the healthy herds hypothesis, the idea that predators can keep packs of prey healthy by removing the weak and the sick. This reduces the chance disease will wipe out the whole herd, but could it be that predators can also make prey populations more susceptible to other predators or even parasites? Biologists at the Georgia Institute of Technology have discovered at least one animal whose defenses against a predator make it a good target for one opportunistic parasite. The research appears online in the journal Functional Ecology.

"We found that strategies that prey use to defend themselves against can increase their susceptibility to infection by parasites," said Meghan Duffy, assistant professor in Georgia Tech's School of Biology.

Duffy, along with colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Indiana University, took a look at a small aquatic crustacean, Daphnia dentifera, a known to be an important part of freshwater ecosystems. They exposed the crustacean to chemicals emitted by one of its predators, a phantom midge larva known as Chaoborus, known to feed on it. When the Daphnia detected those chemicals it grew larger, making it harder for its predator to get its mouth around it.

"Unfortunately for the Daphnia, this defense against predation makes them more vulnerable to parasitism," said Duffy.

That's because while growing larger keeps Daphnia safe from Chaoborus, it actually makes it more susceptible to a virulent yeast parasite, known as Metschnikowia. When Daphnia senses a threat from its predator and grows larger, it ends up consuming more of these parasitic yeasts than it does when normal size. When the yeast infects the crustacean, it kills it, causing the dead animal to release yeast spores as it decomposes. The larger the host, the more it releases back into the water to prey on other .

This image shows an aquatic crustacean, Daphnia dentifera, that’s infected with the yeast parasite Metschnikowia (on the left) next to one that’s not infected (on the right). The parasite, looking like small puffs of cotton, can be seen under the eye and along its back. Credit: Meghan Duffy/Georgia Tech

"Since they need to grow larger to defend themselves against the predator but the opposite to defend against the parasite, they're sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place," she added.

Duffy reasons that this occurs because the predators are common year-round, while the parasites are more episodic in nature, with their populations expanding in epidemics only in the fall and not even yearly. This results in long periods of predation in the absence of the parasite, which probably explains why they respond so strongly to defend themselves against the predator even though it decreases their defenses against the , she added.

"While some have argued for increasing predator densities to control disease, our results suggest that it is important to consider the indirect effects of predators, such as the one we found in which trying to avoid one enemy increases the hosts vulnerability to another," said Duffy.

Explore further: Man 'expelled from Croatia for punching monk seal'

Related Stories

Epidemic this year? Check the lake's shape

May 05, 2010

Of all the things that might control the onset of disease epidemics in Michigan lakes, the shape of the lakes' bottoms might seem unlikely. But that is precisely the case, and a new BioScience report by sci ...

Fish can be picky eaters

Jul 19, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- We all know how fussy kids can be about their food, but now new research suggests they're not the only ones.

Predators do more than kill prey

Jan 17, 2008

The direct effect predators have on their prey is to kill them. The evolutionary changes that can result from this direct effect include prey that are younger at maturity and that produce more offspring.

Recommended for you

Brother of Hibiscus is found alive and well on Maui

13 hours ago

Most people are familiar with Hibiscus flowers- they are an iconic symbol of tropical resorts worldwide where they are commonly planted in the landscape. Some, like Hawaii's State Flower- Hibiscus brackenridgei- are en ...

Boat noise impacts development and survival of sea hares

15 hours ago

While previous studies have shown that marine noise can affect animal movement and communication, with unknown ecological consequences, scientists from the Universities of Bristol and Exeter and the École Pratique des Hautes ...

Classic Lewis Carroll character inspires new ecological model

Jul 30, 2014

Inspired by the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, collaborators from the University of Illinois and National University of Singapore improved a 35-year-old ecology model to better understand how species ...

Saving seeds the right way can save the world's plants

Jul 30, 2014

Exotic pests, shrinking ranges and a changing climate threaten some of the world's most rare and ecologically important plants, and so conservationists establish seed collections to save the seeds in banks ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

stealthc
1.4 / 5 (5) Jun 23, 2011
the eugenecists will keep this herd healthy soon enough! Or rather, this article sounds much like justification for this sort of thinking.
emsquared
not rated yet Jun 23, 2011
the eugenecists ... this article sounds much like justification for this sort of thinking.

I don't think so stealth... I think you're reading what you want to out of it. If anything it's an argument against standard wildlife management practices. Which it's not even really that, or at least not a good one. If the parasite was a bigger threat to reproductive success than the predator, then a defense to the parasite would be more salient, as is though, as they admit themselves, the predator is a constant threat so that defense is more important.

I'd be interested to see them try to apply this to macro-biotic life. About the only way they could, that I can think of, is looking at medieval Europe, when holing up in your keep during a siege got everyone the plague!