The role of host abundance in regulating populations of freshwater mussels with parasitic larvae
Host–parasite theory makes predictions about the influence of host abundance, competition for hosts, and parasite transmission on parasite population size, but many of these predictions are not well tested empirically. We experimentally examined these factors in ponds using two species of freshwater mussels with parasitic larvae that infect host fishes via different infection strategies. For both species, recruitment and larval survival were positively related to host abundance, but there was no apparent minimum host threshold and positive population growth occurred when an average of one fish per mussel was present. Recruitment increased rapidly with an initial increase in host abundance but appeared to approach an asymptote at moderate host abundance. Recruitment and larval survival did not differ according to whether mussel species occurred alone or in combination, providing no evidence for competition for hosts via acquired immunity. However, larval survival of the species that attracts hosts with a lure was higher than the species that infects hosts passively, but lower survival of the latter strategy was offset by higher fecundity, which resulted in comparable recruitment between the two species. The lack of evidence for competition for hosts or host saturation suggests that mussel recruitment is limited primarily by fecundity and larval transmission efficiency. Despite the lack of a minimum host abundance threshold, high variation in recruitment in all treatments suggests that population growth at low host abundance is limited by stochasticity. These results show that host–parasite interactions in natural situations may differ substantially from predictions based on models or laboratory findings.