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Experimental habitat fragmentation disrupts nematode infections in Australian skinks

Resasco, Julian, Bitters, Matthew E., Cunningham, Saul A., Jones, Hugh I., McKenzie, Valerie J., Davies, Kendi F.
Ecology 2019 v.100 no.1 pp. e02547
Amphipoda, Nematoda, Scincidae, biodiversity, digestive system, forests, habitat fragmentation, habitats, host-parasite relationships, intermediate hosts, landscapes, long term experiments, nematode infections, parasites, parasitism, pitfall traps, structural equation modeling
Habitat conversion and fragmentation threaten biodiversity and disrupt species interactions. While parasites are recognized as ecologically important, the impacts of fragmentation on parasitism are poorly understood relative to other species interactions. This lack of understanding is in part due to confounding landscape factors that accompany fragmentation. Fragmentation experiments provide the opportunity to fill this knowledge gap by mechanistically testing how fragmentation affects parasitism while controlling landscape factors. In a large‐scale, long‐term experiment, we asked how fragmentation affects a host–parasite interaction between a skink and a parasitic nematode, which is trophically transmitted via a terrestrial amphipod intermediate host. We expected that previously observed amphipod declines resulting from fragmentation would result in decreased transmission of nematodes to skinks. In agreement, we found that nematodes were absent among skinks in the cleared matrix and that infections in fragments were about one quarter of those in continuous forest. Amphipods found in gut contents of skinks and collected from pitfall traps mirrored this pattern. A structural equation model supported the expectation that fragmentation disrupted this interaction by altering the abundance of amphipods and suggested that other variables are likely also important in mediating this effect. These findings advance understanding of how landscape change affects parasitism.