Alterations in host phenotype induced by parasitic infection are often interpreted as either host or parasite adaptations, depending on which of the two appears to benefit. Mermithid nematodes typically castrate their insect hosts and, therefore, any change in host behavior has no further fitness consequences for the host; the adaptive value of the modified behavior must be assessed with respect to parasite fitness only. In a New Zealand stream, mermithid-infected nymphs of mayflies in the genus Deleatidium were disproportionately represented in drift samples compared with benthic samples, suggesting that infection by mermithids results in an increased tendency to drift. Drifting mayflies face a higher predation risk from trout, and the mermithid nematodes they harbor die if ingested by a fish. The change in mayfly behavior induced by mermithids thus appears to have negative fitness effects for the parasite, and one possible explanation for this phenomenon is that it is a nonadaptive, pathological side effect of infection.
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