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Estimating parasite-condition relationships and potential health effects for fallow deer (Dama dama) and red deer (Cervus elaphus) in Denmark

New publication by van Beest, Floris M. ; Petersen, Heidi H. ; Krogh, Anne K.H. et al.


Parasites can exert a substantial influence on the ecology of wildlife populations by altering host condition. Our objectives were to estimate single and multiparasite-condition relationships for fallow deer (Dama dama) and red deer (Cervus elaphus) in Denmark and to assess potential health effects along the parasite burden gradient. Fallow deer hosted on average two endoparasite taxa per individual (min = 0, max = 5) while red deer carried on average five parasite taxa per individual (min = 2, max = 9). Body condition of both deer species was negatively related to presence of Trichuris ssp. eggs while body condition of red deer was positively related to antibodies of the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii. For the remaining parasite taxa (n = 12), we either found weak or no apparent association between infection and deer body condition or low prevalence levels restricted formal testing. Importantly, we detected a strong negative relationship between body condition and the sum of endoparasite taxa carried by individual hosts, a pattern that was evident in both deer species. We did not detect systemic inflammatory reactions, yet serology revealed reduced total protein and iron concentrations with increased parasite load in both deer species, likely due to maldigestion of forage or malabsorption of nutrients. Despite moderate sample sizes, our study highlights the importance of considering multiparasitism when assessing body condition impacts in deer populations. Moreover, we show how serum chemistry assays are a valuable diagnostic tool to detect subtle and sub-clinical health impacts of parasitism, even at low-level infestation.