Date of Award


Degree Name

MS in Biological Sciences


Biological Sciences


Dr. Emily Taylor


Host-parasite relationships are one of the most common symbiotic relationships present in a diverse array of ecosystems. There are numerous factors that impact the dynamics of these relationships. Major factors that can influence the degree of parasitism include host sex, hormonal state, reproductive condition, and behavior. It has been observed in several vertebrate taxa that males have higher ectoparasite intensities than females and males with increased testosterone have increased ectoparasite intensities. One potential reason for these observations is that testosterone concentrations are elevated in males, particularly during the breeding season, and when circulating concentrations increase males become more vulnerable to ectoparasitism. Here I first tested the hypothesis that higher circulating testosterone concentrations in male western fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis) induce higher tick intensities. To examine this hypothesis I implanted male lizards with either testosterone or blank implants in the field. The testosterone-implanted males had significantly higher tick intensities compared to the control males. However, in contrast, control males had significantly higher mite intensities compared to testosterone-implanted males. These results are consistent with other studies suggesting that testosterone impacts certain aspects of host-parasite relationships. However, the exact mechanism for how testosterone influences parasite intensities remains unclear.

There are two major current hypotheses for how testosterone influences ectoparasite intensities on males, the first involving immunosuppression and the second involving behavioral patterns and movement. However, another potential reason for why male lizards, particularly those with high circulating testosterone, have higher ectoparasite intensities than female and low testosterone male lizards is that the parasites preferentially choose their host. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that vitellogenic female lizards have diminished immune function and this could potentially lead to increased ectoparasitism in much the same way that testosterone does in male lizards. Therefore, it is possible that a host preference is also present with vitellogenic versus non-vitellogenic female lizards. Although there have been a few interspecific studies done on this topic there have been no such studies on parasite host preference in reptiles to date. Here I tested three hypotheses: 1. Ticks prefer male lizards to female lizards. 2. Ticks prefer male lizards with high testosterone concentrations to male lizards with normal testosterone concentrations. 3. Ticks prefer vitellogenic female lizards to non-vitellogenic female lizards. All three experiments demonstrated no preference of host by ticks, which suggests they will attach to any suitable host they come across. However, during the male versus female host choice experiment ticks fed faster on vitellogenic female lizards than male lizards and non-vitellogenic female lizards. These results, taken together with previous studies showing higher tick intensities on male lizards, lizards with experimentally elevated testosterone, and reproductive female lizards, provide evidence that ticks do not preferentially choose their host, but instead are found in higher numbers on certain hosts due to some other reason. Other potential explanations include differences in immune function, microhabitat use, and behavioral patterns.

One of the major hypotheses as to why male lizards, particularly those with high testosterone concentrations, have higher ectoparasite intensities than female lizards and male lizards with low testosterone concentrations is that these lizards perform more territorial behaviors, have increased movements, and larger home range sizes, thus exposing them to more parasites. Several studies have shown testosterone to increase the frequency of behaviors, movement, and home range size in lizards, but few, if any, have related it to ectoparasite intensities. Here I tested two hypotheses: 1. High testosterone male lizards have larger home ranges than male lizards with lower testosterone concentrations and female lizards. 2. High testosterone male lizards perform a higher frequency of territorial behaviors than male lizards with lower testosterone concentrations and female lizards. To test these hypotheses I implanted male lizards with either testosterone or blank-control implants, left female lizards unaltered, and performed behavioral observations in the field for 25 days. At the end of this time period, home range sizes were calculated as minimum convex polygons and ectoparasite intensities were quantified. Results of this study revealed no significant difference in ectoparasite intensities between high and low testosterone male lizards, but male lizards did have significantly higher ectoparasite intensities than female lizards. Furthermore, home range size and frequencies of territorial behaviors were not significantly different between high and low testosterone male lizards. However, male lizards did have larger home ranges and performed more territorial behaviors and movements than female lizards. These results suggest that home range, movement, and territorial behavior frequency contribute to higher ectoparasite intensities on male lizards, particularly those on males with high circulating testosterone. However, future studies need to address the behavioral and physiological mechanisms responsible for the observed effects of testosterone on parasitism, including parasite intensity, immunosuppression, and parasitic effects on host fitness.