In contrast to the extensively studied sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) of humans, little is known of the ecology or evolutionary biology of sexually transmitted parasites in natural systems. This study of a sexually transmitted parasite on an insect host augments our understanding of both the parasite's population dynamics and virulence effects. The impact of overwintering was assessed on the prevalence of the parasitic mite Coccipolipus hippodamiae on the two-spot ladybird, Adalia bipunctata. First, the effect of infection on host survival was examined during the stressful overwintering period. Box experiments in the field revealed that the infected ladybirds, especially males, are less likely to survive overwintering. The study provides the first evidence that the parasite harms males and suggests revisions of theories on the adaptive virulence of sexually transmitted parasites. It also indicates the importance of using a range of experimental conditions because virulence can be dependent on host condition and sex. Box experiments were also used to examine whether transmission of the parasite occurs within overwintering aggregations. These revealed that substantial transmission does not occur in aggregations and that transmission is predominantly sexual. Overall, the virulence effects and the lack of transmission mean that the overwintering period acts to diminish parasite prevalence and will retard the spring epidemic associated with host reproductive activity.
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