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Latitudinal gradients in niche breadth: empirical evidence from haematophagous ectoparasites

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Abstract Aim 

We searched for relationships between latitude and both the geographic range size and host specificity of fleas parasitic on small mammals. This provided a test for the hypothesis that specialization is lower, and thus niche breadth is wider, in high-latitude species than in their counterparts at lower latitudes. Location 

We used data on the host specificity and geographic range size of 120 Palaearctic flea species (Siphonaptera) parasitic on small mammals (Soricomorpha, Lagomorpha and Rodentia). Data on host specificity were taken from 33 regions, whereas data on geographic ranges covered the entire distribution of the 120 species. Methods 

Our analyses controlled for the potentially confounding effects of phylogenetic relationships among flea species by means of the independent-contrasts method. We used regressions and structural equation modelling to determine whether the latitudinal position of the geographic range of a flea covaried with either the size of its range or its host specificity. The latter was measured as the number of host species used, as well as by an index providing the average (and variance in) taxonomic distinctness among the host species used by a flea. Results 

Geographic range size was positively correlated with the position of the centre of the range; in other words, fleas with more northerly distributions had larger geographic ranges. Although the number of host species used by a flea did not vary with latitude, both the mean taxonomic distinctness among host species used and its variance increased significantly towards higher latitudes. Main conclusions 

The results indicate that niche breadth in fleas, measured in terms of both its spatial (geographic range size) and biological (host specificity) components, increases at higher latitudes. These findings are compatible with the predictions of recent hypotheses about latitudinal gradients.

Keywords: Fleas; Rapoport's rule; Siphonaptera; geographic range; host specificity; latitude; niche breadth; small mammals

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Desert Animal Adaptations and Husbandry, Wyler Department of Dryland Agriculture, Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Sede-Boqer Campus, 84990 Midreshet Ben-Gurion, Israel 2: UMR CNRS-UMII 5119 Ecosystemes Lagunaires, University of Montpellier II, CC093, FR-34095 Montpellier Cedex 5, France 3: Department of Zoology, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand

Publication date: April 1, 2008

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