Experimental evidence that host choice by parasites is age-dependent in a fish-monogenean system
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Host age is known to influence the risk of parasite infection, but there is very little experimental evidence on whether parasites show preference towards potential hosts of a specific age. To investigate how host age affects host choice by parasites, we used the Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) as a fish parasite model and manipulated its gill ectoparasitic monogeneans in mesocosm experiments. Our experimental setting combined three age classes (juvenile, subadult, and adult) of both infected donor hosts and uninfected potential target hosts assigned to each treatment. We predicted that adult target hosts would be more susceptible to parasites than juveniles and adults because they represent high-quality habitat patches. Contrary to our prediction, we found that subadults were more susceptible to parasites than juvenile and adult target hosts. Our models confirmed that variation in target host age influenced parasite choice, suggesting that subadults might represent the most favourable option for parasites regarding a balance between host quality and susceptibility. We provide experimental evidence that host choice by parasites is age-dependent, and that this life-history trait can play a major role in structuring parasite populations.