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Parasite infection impairs the shoaling behaviour of uninfected shoal members under predator attack

A key benefit of sociality is a reduction in predation risk. Cohesive group behaviour and rapid collective decision making are essential for reducing predation risk in groups. Parasite infection might reduce an individuals’ grouping behaviours and thereby change the behaviour of the group as a whole. To investigate the relationship between parasite infection and grouping behaviours, we studied groups of three-spined sticklebacks, Gasterosteus aculeatus, varying the number of individuals experimentally infected with the cestode Schistocephalus solidus. We studied groups of six sticklebacks containing 0, 2, 3, 4 or 6 infected individuals before and after a simulated bird attack. We predicted that infected individuals would have reduced shoaling and swimming speed and that the presence of infected individuals within a group would reduce group cohesion and speed. Uninfected fish increased shoaling and reduced swimming speed more than infected fish after the bird attack. In groups containing both infected and uninfected fish, the group behaviours were dominated by the more frequent character (uninfected versus infected). Interestingly, groups with equal numbers of uninfected and infected fish showed the least shoaling and had the lowest swimming speeds, suggesting that these groups failed to generate a majority and therefore displayed signs of indecisiveness by reducing their swimming speed the most. Our results provide evidence for a negative effect of infection on a group’s shoaling behaviour, thereby potentially deteriorating collective decision making. The presence of infected individuals might thus have far-reaching consequences in natural populations under predation risk.

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