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Hopping on: Conspecific traveller density within a vehicle regulates parasitic hitchhiking between ephemeral microcosms


Gupta, Satyajeet; Borges, Renee (2020), Hopping on: Conspecific traveller density within a vehicle regulates parasitic hitchhiking between ephemeral microcosms, Dryad, Dataset,


Hitchhikers (phoretic organisms) identify their vehicles using species-specific visual, chemical and vibrational cues. However, what factors influence their choice between vehicles of the same species has rarely been investigated.

Hitchhikers must not only avoid overcrowded vehicles but may also need to travel with conspecifics to ensure mates at their destination. Hence, a trade-off between overcrowding and presence of conspecifics likely determines choice of a vehicle especially when destination sites are distant, ephemeral and unique.

Here, we investigate whether a trade-off between the presence of conspecifics vs overcrowding by conspecifics or heterospecifics on a vehicle affects hitchhiker choice. We also investigate the sensory modality responsible for this choice. We experimentally examine these questions using a phoretic nematode community (containing plant- and animal-parasitic taxa) obligately associated with a brood-site pollination mutualism. In this model system nematodes co-travel with conspecifics and heterospecifics on pollinators as vehicles, between ephemeral plant brood-sites to complete their developmental life cycle. In this system, hitchhiker overcrowding has proven negative impacts on vehicle and plant fitness. We expected nematodes to respond to conspecifics and heterospecific density on offered vehicles when making their choice.

We found that animal-parasitic nematodes preferred vehicles containing some conspecifics within a certain density range. However, plant-parasitic nematodes preferentially boarded vehicles that were devoid of conspecifics or had few conspecifics. Plant parasites that preferred empty vehicles likely hitchhiked in pairs. Both nematode types employed volatile cues to discriminate between vehicles with different conspecific nematode densities. Our results suggest that vehicle overcrowding by conspecifics, most likely, guaranteed access to mates at the destination determined hitchhiker choice. Surprisingly, and contrary to our expectations, plant- and animal-parasitic nematodes did not respond to heterospecific crowding on vehicles and did not discriminate between vehicles with different heterospecific nematode densities. The reason for this lack of response to heterospecific presence is unknown.

This study not only shows that phoretic organisms use different strategies while choosing a vehicle but also confirms that density-dependent effects can ensure the stability and persistence of phoretic interactions in a mutualism by balancing overcrowding against reproductive assurance.