Parasite infection disrupts escape behaviours in fish shoals
Many prey species have evolved collective responses to avoid predation. They rapidly transfer information about potential predators to trigger and coordinate escape waves. Predation avoidance behaviour is often manipulated by trophically transmitted parasites, to facilitate their transmission to the next host. We hypothesized that the presence of infected, behaviourally altered individuals might disturb the spread of escape waves. We used the tapeworm Schistocephalus solidus, which increases risk-taking behaviour and decreases social responsiveness of its host, the three-spined stickleback, to test this hypothesis. Three subgroups of sticklebacks were placed next to one another in separate compartments with shelter. The middle subgroup contained either uninfected or infected sticklebacks. We confronted an outer subgroup with an artificial bird strike and studied how the escape response spread through the subgroups. With uninfected sticklebacks in the middle, escape waves spread rapidly through the entire shoal and fish remained in shelter thereafter. With infected sticklebacks in the middle the escape wave was disrupted and uninfected fish rarely used the shelter. Infected individuals can disrupt the transmission of flight responses, thereby not only increasing their own predation risk but also that of their uninfected shoal members. Our study uncovers a potentially far-reaching fitness consequence of grouping with infected individuals.