Background: Parasites can cause energetically costly behavioural and immunological responses which potentially can reduce host fitness. However, although most laboratory studies indicate that the metabolic rate of the host increases with parasite infestation, this has never been shown in free-living host populations. In fact, studies thus far have shown no effect of parasitism on field metabolic rate (FMR).
Methodology and results: We tested the effect of parasites on the energy expenditure of a host by measuring FMR using doubly-labelled water in free-living Baluchistan gerbils (Gerbillus nanus) infested by naturally occurring fleas during winter, spring and summer. We showed for the first time that FMR of free-living G. nanus was significantly and positively correlated with parasite load in spring when parasite load was highest; this relationship approached significance in summer when parasite load was lowest but was insignificant in winter. Among seasons, winter FMRs were highest and summer FMRs were lowest in G. nanus.
Discussion: The lack of parasite effect on FMR in winter could be related to the fact that FMR rates were highest among seasons. In this season, thermoregulatory costs are high which may indicate that less energy could be allocated to defend against parasites or to compensate for other costly activities. The question about the cost of parasitism in nature is now one of the major themes in ecological physiology. Our study supports the hypothesis that parasites can elevate FMR of their hosts, at least under certain conditions. However, the effect is complex and factors such as season and parasite load are involved.