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Effects of maternal and grandmaternal flea infestation on offspring quality and quantity in a desert rodent: evidence for parasite-mediated transgenerational phenotypic plasticity

Warburton, Elizabeth M., Khokhlova, Irina S., van der Mescht, Luther, Downs, Cynthia J., Dlugosz, Elizabeth M., Krasnov, Boris R.
International journal for parasitology 2019 v.49 no.6 pp. 481-488
Meriones, Xenopsylla, insect infestations, litter size, males, maternal effect, mothers, parasites, parasitism, phenotype, phenotypic plasticity, progeny, pups, reproductive fitness, risk, rodents, sexual maturity, weaning
Parasites can cause a broad range of sublethal fitness effects across a wide variety of host taxa. However, a host’s efforts to compensate for possible parasite-induced fitness effects are less well-known. Parental effects may beneficially alter the offspring phenotype if parental environments sufficiently predict the offspring environment. Parasitism is a common stressor across generations; therefore, parental infestation could reliably predict the likelihood of infestation for offspring. However, little is known about relationships between parasitism and transgenerational phenotypic plasticity. Thus, we investigated how maternal and grandmaternal infestation with fleas (Xenopsylla ramesis) affected offspring quality and quantity in a desert rodent (Meriones crassus). We used a fully-crossed design with control and infested treatments to examine litter size, pup body mass at birth, and pup mass gain before weaning for combinations of maternal and grandmaternal infestation status. No effect of treatment on litter size or pup body mass at birth was found. However, maternal and grandmaternal infestation status significantly affected pre-weaning body mass gain, a proxy for the rate of maturation, in male pups. Pups gained significantly more weight before weaning if maternal and grandmaternal infestation statuses matched, regardless of the treatment. Thus, pups whose mothers and grandmothers experienced similar risks of parasitism, either both non-parasitized or both infested, would reach sexual maturity more quickly than those pups whose mothers’ infestation status did not match that of their grandmothers. These results support the contention that parents can receive external cues such as the risk of parasitism, that prompt them to alter offspring provisioning. Therefore, parasites could be a mediator of environmentally-induced maternal effects and could affect host reproductive fitness across multiple generations.