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Behavioural Responses to Simulated Avian Predation in Female Three Spined Sticklebacks: The Effect of Experimental Schistocephalus Solidus Infections

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Plerocercoid larvae of Schistocephalus solidus are common parasites of three-spined sticklebacks that require the ingestion of stickleback hosts by birds to complete their life cycle. Amongst wild-caught sticklebacks, infection is associated with a reduction in antipredator behaviour; however, to date no study has examined the escape responses of experimentally infected sticklebacks, and thus assigning causality remains difficult. Here, we compare aspects of the antipredator behaviour of five experimentally infected female sticklebacks with shamexposed controls over a 16 post-exposure week period. During weeks 1-7 post-exposure, the escape responses of infected fish did not differ significantly from those of sham-exposed fish. However, over weeks 9-15, when infected fish had developed plerocercoids of > 50 mg — the size at which they become infective to birds — a lower proportion of infected fish performed directional responses and reached cover within 2 s of the strike. Infected fish also performed a lower frequency of 'staggered dashes', and a higher frequency of 'slow swims', than shamexposed fish over weeks 9-15. Amongst sham-exposed fish, re-emergence from cover was uncommon throughout the study, but infected fish regularly left cover during weeks 9-15. Our results support those of previous studies examining behavioural change in naturally infected fish and, although other explanations remain possible, our finding that behaviour change in experimentally-infected fish is limited to hosts harbouring single infective parasites provides further evidence that the behaviour changes may be parasite adaptations.


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