Numerous parasite species have evolved complex life cycles with multiple, subsequent hosts. In trematodes, each transmission event in multi-host life cycles selects for various adaptations, one of which is facultative life cycle abbreviation. This typically occurs through progenesis, i.e., precocious maturity and reproduction via self-fertilization within the second intermediate host. Progenesis eliminates the need for the definitive host and facilitates life cycle completion. Adopting a progenetic cycle may be a conditional strategy in response to environmental cues related to low probability of transmission to the definitive host. Here, the effects of environmental factors on the reproductive strategy of the progenetic trematode Stegodexamene anguillae were investigated using comparisons among populations. In the 3-host life cycle, S. anguillae sexually reproduces within eel definitive hosts, whereas in the progenetic life cycle, S. anguillae reproduces by selfing within the metacercaria cyst in tissues of small fish intermediate hosts. Geographic variation was found in the frequency of progenesis, independent of eel abundance. Progenesis was affected by abundance and length of the second intermediate fish host as well as encystment site within the host. The present study is the first to compare life cycle strategies among parasite populations, providing insight into the often unrecognized plasticity in parasite developmental strategies and transmission.
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