Parasitology (2006)

DOI: 10.1017/s0031182006000321


We compared the distribution of the digenean Pholeter gastrophilus in the stomach of 27 harbour porpoises, Phocoena phocoena, 27 striped dolphins, Stenella coeruleoalba, 18 bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, and 100 long-finned pilot whales, Globicephala melas. The stomach of these species is composed of 4 chambers of different size, structure and function. In all species, P. gastrophilus was largely restricted to the glandular region of the stomach, but the parasite tended to favour the fundic chamber in bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises, the pyloric chamber in pilot whales, and none in striped dolphins. However, predictability at infrapopulation level was generally low, suggesting a weak preference of P. gastrophilus for any of the chambers. Three hypotheses were tested to investigate a common cause for the distribution of P. gastrophilus in all host species, namely, colonization of chambers was (1) sequential, (2) dependent on chamber size, or (3) dependent on the passage time of food through the whole stomach. The latter hypothesis was indirectly tested by assuming, based on previous evidence from other vertebrates, that the greater the size of the stomach and/or the energy content of prey, the greater the delay of food passage. We found no compelling evidence that chamber colonization was sequential, or related to chamber size in any species. However, the distribution of P. gastrophilus was significantly more anteriad when the host species had larger stomachs and, particularly, when hosts fed on prey with higher caloric content. Accordingly, the stomach distribution of P. gastrophilus at this scale seems to be passively driven by features of the diet and digestive physiology of each host species. This study provides a general framework to formulate null hypotheses in future studies on microhabitat choice by parasites.