Research Article

The coevolutionary potential of a ‘generalist’ parasite, the hen flea Ceratophyllus gallinae

F. TRIPET a1 and H. RICHNER a1
a1 Zoology Department, University of Bern, CH-3032 Hinterkappelen, Switzerland


Hosts exert selection pressures on their parasites and it is often assumed that host–parasite coevolution with each host is less intense in a generalist parasite than for a parasite with a narrow host range. Selection pressure on the parasite, however, is rather determined by host specificity, i.e. the relative importance of each host, than simply by the range of hosts. The determination of host specificity requires an assessment of the prevalence and intensity of parasite infestation within each host's nests, as well as the local abundance of each host species. Since the hen flea, Ceratophyllus gallinae, is a rather generalist parasite of birds it could be concluded that there has been weak coevolution with each of its hosts. By reviewing the literature on the prevalence and intensity of hen flea infestations in bird nests we estimated the number of individuals produced in the nest of each host species. The comparative analysis shows (1) that the prevalence of infestation is highest in hole-nesting avian families, (2) that prevalence and intensity of infestation among bird families are highly correlated, and (3) that hole-nesting Paridae have the highest intensities of infestation and harbour the majority of the flea population. These results underline the fleas' potential for coevolution with Paridae despite their extensive host range.

(Received December 24 1996)
(Revised April 21 1997)
(Accepted April 21 1997)

Key Words: host specificity; Ceratophyllus gallinae; niche exploitation; specialization; Paridae.


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