Parasites and the island syndrome: the colonization of the western Mediterranean islands by Heligmosomoides polygyrus (Dujardin, 1845)

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Abstract Aim 

Populations of free-living vertebrates on islands frequently differ from their mainland counterparts by a series of changes in morphometric, life-history, behavioural, physiological and genetic traits, collectively referred to as the ‘island syndrome’. It is not known, however, whether the ‘island syndrome’ also affects parasitic organisms. The present study establishes the colonization pattern of the Mediterranean islands by the nematode Heligmosomoides polygyrus, a direct and specific parasite of rodent hosts of the Apodemus genus, and evaluates the effects of island colonization by this species on two components of the island syndrome: the loss of genetic diversity and the enlargement of the ecological niche. Location 

Heligmosomoides polygyrus was sampled on seven western Mediterranean islands − Corsica, Crete, Elba, Majorca, Minorca, Sardinia and Sicily − as well as in 20 continental locations covering the Mediterranean basin. Methods 

The mitochondrial cytochrome b gene (690 base pairs) was sequenced in 166 adult H. polygyrus individuals sampled in the 27 continental and island locations. Phylogenetic reconstructions in distance, parsimony, maximum likelihood and Bayesian posterior probabilities were carried out on the whole cytochrome b gene data set. The levels of nucleotide, haplotype and genetic divergence (Kimura two-parameter distance estimator) diversities were estimated in each island population and in the various continental lineages. Results 

Phylogenetic reconstructions show that the mainland origins of H. polygyrus were continental Spain for the Balearic Islands (Majorca, Minorca), northern Italy for the Tyrrhenian Islands (Corsica, Sardinia, Elba), southern Italy for Sicily, and the Balkan region for Crete. A comparison of island H. polygyrus populations with their mainland source populations revealed two characteristic components of the island syndrome in this parasite. First, island H. polygyrus populations display a significant loss of genetic diversity, which is related (r2 = 0.73) to the distance separating the island from the mainland source region. Second, H. polygyrus exhibits a niche enlargement following insularization. Indeed, H. polygyrus in Corsica is present in both A. sylvaticus and Mus musculus domesticus, while mainland H. polygyrus populations are present exclusively in Apodemus hosts. Main conclusions 

Our results show that H. polygyrus has undergone a loss of genetic diversity and a niche (host) enlargement following colonization of the western Mediterranean islands. To our knowledge, this study provides the first evidence for components of the ‘island syndrome’ in a parasitic nematode species.

Keywords: Corsica; Heligmosomoidea; Heligmosomoides polygyrus corsicum; island biogeography; island syndrome; mitochondrial cytochrome b; nematode; niche enlargement

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Centre de Biologie et de Gestion des Populations, Campus International Agropolis de Baillarguet, Montferrier-sur-Lez, France 2: Zoogeographical Research Unit, Liège, Belgium

Publication date: July 1, 2006

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