Parasite-associated mortality in a long-lived mammal: Variation with host age, sex, and reproduction.

26 Apr 2018

Parasites can cause severe host morbidity and threaten survival. As parasites are generally aggregated within certain host demographics, they are likely to affect a small proportion of the entire population, with specific hosts being at particular risk. However, little is known as to whether increased host mortality from parasitic causes is experienced by specific host demographics. Outside of theoretical studies, there is a paucity of literature concerning dynamics of parasite-associated host mortality. Empirical evidence mainly focuses on short-lived hosts or model systems, with data lacking from long-lived wild or semi-wild vertebrate populations. We investigated parasite-associated mortality utilizing a multigenerational database of mortality, health, and reproductive data for over 4,000 semi-captive timber elephants (Elephas maximus), with known causes of death for mortality events. We determined variation in mortality according to a number of host traits that are commonly associated with variation in parasitism within mammals: age, sex, and reproductive investment in females. We found that potentially parasite-associated mortality varied significantly across elephant ages, with individuals at extremes of lifespan (young and old) at highest risk. Mortality probability was significantly higher for males across all ages. Female reproducers experienced a lower probability of potentially parasite-associated mortality than females who did not reproduce at any investigated time frame. Our results demonstrate increased potentially parasite-associated mortality within particular demographic groups. These groups (males, juveniles, elderly adults) have been identified in other studies as susceptible to parasitism, stressing the need for further work investigating links between infection and mortality. Furthermore, we show variation between reproductive and non-reproductive females, with mothers being less at risk of potentially parasite mortality than nonreproducers.