30 November 2010

Nibbled to distraction: Gerbils infested with fleas don't watch for foxes

ResearchBlogging.orgIn natural communities, each species is embedded in a web of interactions with other species—predators, prey, competitors, mutualists, and parasites. The effects of all these other species combine in complex, unpredictable ways. I recently discussed a study of protozoans living inside pitcher plants that found predators and competitors can cancel out each others' evolutionary effects. Now another study finds that parasites and predators can interact to make desert-living gerbils adopt less effective foraging strategies [$a].

Allenby's gerbil is a small desert rodent native to Israel's Negev Desert. They make a living foraging for seeds, which might seem simple enough—but for small desert mammals, it's a constant balancing act. Foraging requires continuously judging how profitable it is to continue gathering seeds in one spot compared to looking for another, maybe better, spot; and all the while watching out for predators.
The red fox—a major threat if you're a tiny rodent, but hard to watch for when you're scratching fleas all the time. Photo by HyperViper.
For small mammals, parasites like fleas can impose a real physiological cost—but they might also cause irritation that interfere with effective foraging. This idea led a group of Israeli reserachers to experimentally infest captive gerbils with fleas, and release them into an enclosure with a red fox.

It's okay—the fox was muzzled! The research group was interested in how effectively the gerbils foraged in standardized patches of resources (trays of seed mixed with sand) in the presence of predators, and how being flea-ridden changed that foraging behavior. As metrics of foraging efficiency, they recorded how rapidly the gerbils gave up foraging in a single tray before moving on to another, which approximates how many seeds they left behind.

With no fleas, gerbils spent slightly—but not significantly—less time foraging in a single tray when a fox was in the enclosure with them. But gerbils infested with fleas moved on to a new tray substantially faster in the presence of a fox, leaving behind more seeds in the process. The study's authors suggest that this is because the irritation caused by fleas distracted the gerbils too much to keep watch for a predator and forage at the same time—so flea-ridden gerbils made up for being less watchful by moving between patches of resources more rapidly.

So for gerbils, the presence of a second, different kind of antagonist amplifies the effects of a nearby predator. Fleas and foxes aren't just a double whammy—the effects of both together are worse than the sum of each individually.

Reference

Raveh, A., Kotler, B., Abramsky, Z., & Krasnov, B. (2010). Driven to distraction: detecting the hidden costs of flea parasitism through foraging behaviour in gerbils. Ecology Letters DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2010.01549.x

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