Host community composition and defensive symbionts determine trematode parasite abundance in host communities
Host species vary in their propensity to become infected by and transmit parasites, and this variation in host competency can influence parasite transmission within host communities. Host competency is often attributed to morphological, physiological, and behavioral defenses of hosts, but hosts commonly have an additional, lesser studied form of protection: defensive symbionts. For instance, snails are facultatively defended by ectosymbiotic oligochaete worms (Chaetogaster limnaei) that consume free-living trematode parasites, bacteria protect amphibians from the fungus that causes chytridiomycosis, and ants protect plants from herbivores. In addition to reducing infection on their hosts, defensive symbionts may influence parasite transmission to other hosts by redirecting parasites toward other hosts and/or removing parasites from the system. We explored these possibilities by examining the relative roles of community composition and the presence of defensive symbionts (C. limnaei) in determining trematode infection intensity among second intermediate host communities composed of snails (Helisoma trivolvis) and tadpoles (Rana catesbeiana). Parasites were dramatically more successful at infecting snails than tadpoles, which led to more total parasites in host communities where snails were present. In addition, defensive symbionts substantially reduced snail infection intensity and thus reduced the total number of parasites in communities containing symbiont-defended snail hosts. Neither host community composition nor the presence of defensive symbionts on snails influenced individual tadpole infection in our experiments. Therefore, in our experiments, second intermediate host community structure did not influence individual host tadpole infection risk, but did influence total parasite transmission.