Parasites and life history variation in a wild mammal
Hayward, Adam David
The purpose of this thesis is to investigate associations between parasite infection and host life-history variation in the wild Soay sheep population of the islands of St Kilda, NW Scotland. Studying host-parasite interactions in wild animal populations is of interest because of the importance of heterogeneity in resource availability, genetics, and environmental conditions in determining resistance to parasites, with implications for human populations and wildlife conservation and management. However, very few studies are able to investigate these associations in a longitudinal manner, which is essential in order to understand how infection is associated with life-history variation across ages and environmental conditions. In this thesis, I investigate associations between parasite resistance and ageing and the importance of maternal effects on offspring parasite resistance. I also establish the shape of natural selection on parasite resistance, and associations between measures of parasite burden and antibody responses. The principle findings of the analyses presented in this thesis are: i) Adult sheep of both sexes show a decline in parasite resistance in old age which is consistent with senescence. Furthermore, the rate of decline in parasite resistance with age is accelerated in individuals that have experienced more stressful environmental conditions over their lifespan. ii) Aspects of maternal phenotype and lamb early life performance are significantly associated with parasite resistance in lambs. Some of these effects persist into adult life and may even affect late-life changes in parasite resistance with age. iii) Analysis of ageing in five female reproductive traits shows that the contributions of individual senescence, terminal effects, and selective disappearance vary across traits, and that therefore multiple traits should be studied in order to understand ageing more fully. Most strikingly, there was no evidence for significant senescence in the probability of producing twins. iv) The first estimate of the strength of natural selection on parasite resistance in a longitudinally-monitored population provided evidence for positive selection on parasite resistance in lambs but not adults. Selection in lambs also varied across environmental conditions, being stronger in years of more favourable conditions. v) Analysis of associations between estimates of parasite burden and antibody responses showed that an estimate of parasite burden was not correlated with either a general or parasite-specific antibody response. However, antibody responses were positively correlated, and there was some evidence for a genetic correlation between the two in lambs but not adults.