Parasites can regulate host abundance and influence the composition and structure of communities. However, host–parasite interactions might be context-specific if environmental conditions can alter the outcome of parasitism and disease. An understanding of how host–parasite interactions might change in different contexts will be useful for predicting and managing disease against a background of anthropogenic environmental change. We examined the ecology of Myxobolus cerebralis, the parasite that causes whirling disease in salmonids, and its obligate host, Tubifex tubifex, in geothermally variable stream reaches in Yellowstone National Park. We identified reaches in 4 categories of geothermal influence, which were characterized by variable substrates, temperatures, specific conductivities, and pH. In each reach, we measured aspects of host ecology (abundance, relative abundance, size, and genotype of T. tubifex), parasite ecology (infection prevalence in T. tubifex and abundance of M. cerebralis-infected T. tubifex), and risk to fish of contracting whirling disease. Tubifex tubifex abundance was high all in reaches characterized by geothermal influence, whereas abundance of M. cerebralis-infected T. tubifex was high only in reaches characterized by intermediate geothermal influence. We suggest that habitat had a contextual effect on parasitism in the oligochaete host. Abundance of infected hosts appeared to depend on host abundance in all reach types except those with high geothermal influence, where abundance of infected hosts depended on environmental factors.
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