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Title: Avian malaria in the montane tropics
Author: Daly, Benjamin
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2013
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Understanding the unequal distribution of life on earth is a fundamental goal of ecology and evolutionary biology. Past efforts to explain large-scale patterns in diversity have tended to focus on two broad classes of explanation, one invoking the importance of abiotic factors (i.e. climate and vegetation) and the other biotic (i.e. competition); but neither has proven entirely adequate. Parasites are a major but poorly understood component of life that may offer some answers. Yet despite widespread theoretical support and some empirical evidence, the role of parasites in explaining patterns in the diversity, distribution, and abundance of species remains largely untested in natural communities. In this thesis I use a mega-diverse elevation gradient of birds as a model system to study the role of avian malaria in explaining these macroecological patterns. In the first data chapter I tested the extent to which patterns of infection across species is predictable. I found that the effects of host ecology and environment were weakly related to infection prevalence and were not consistent across different malaria lineages. Instead, I show that hosts coexisting with many close phylogenetic relatives consistently experience higher infection than evolutionarily distinct host species. In the second chapter I tested if parasite sharing may help explain these observed relationships and show that parasite sharing among host pairs declines with the time since divergence. Spatial contiguity between host pairs was also positively associated with parasite sharing. In the third chapter I tested how infection prevalence varies across species ranges in accordance with expected variation in host abundance. I show that birds are more likely to be infected at the centre of their elevation range, where host abundance is expected to be highest. Intriguingly, I also found that the incidence of host infection is unrelated to the position within the geographic range of the parasite. In the fourth data chapter, I tested whether parasites may regulate diversity by limiting geographic ranges of their hosts through ‘apparent competition’ in which a non-lethal parasite in a primary host, may be lethal in a secondary host. In support of this, I found that more observed bird ranges end at parasite infection zones than would be expected by chance. Taken together, my results suggest that parasites may play a major role in shaping patterns in the distribution and diversity of species, over both ecological and evolutionary scales. This is likely to arise and be maintained by host parasite interactions in which distantly related hosts are less likely to be infected by local parasites than close relatives, thus promoting the build up of diversity locally. On the basis of my analyses, I conclude that across montane elevation gradients in birds, and across diversity gradients more generally, parasites are likely to play a crucial role in the origin and maintenance of high biological diversity.
Supervisor: Tobias, Joseph; Seddon, Nathalie; Hellgren, Olof Sponsor: Natural Environment Research Council
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Zoological sciences ; Disease (zoology) ; Ecology (zoology) ; Evolution (zoology) ; avian malaria ; community diversity ; phylogenetic uniqueness ; ccological uniqueness ; host ; parasite