Habitat fragmentation, not habitat loss, drives the prevalence of blood parasites in a Caribbean passerine

Published online: 
12 March 2018

Pérez-Rodríguez Antón, Khimoun Aurélie, Ollivier Anthony, Eraud Cyril, Faivre Bruno, Garnier Stéphane

Habitat destruction due to human land-use activities is well recognized as a central threat to biodiversity. However, there is still debate about the relative influence of its two components, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation, mostly because few studies have been able to disentangle their respective effects. We studied mechanisms by which habitat destruction might influence the prevalence of vector-transmitted haemosporidian blood parasites of the genera Plasmodium and Haemoproteus infecting the Lesser Antillean bullfinch Loxigilla noctis on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Starting from a large set of environmental descriptors (including metrics reflecting habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and landscape heterogeneity; as well as other variables not linked to habitat destruction, such as climatic conditions), we used PLS regression analyses to determine which variables were driving parasite prevalence on the islands. Our results showed that variables related to forest destruction were much more influential than other factors for all parasites analyzed on both islands. Remarkably, the effects documented were almost exclusively due to forest fragmentation, as opposed to habitat loss. This positive effect of forest fragmentation on blood parasite prevalence is proposed to happen through its effects on insect vectors and/or host biology. Increased understanding of the role of habitat fragmentation as a driver of parasitic diseases can help limiting the risk of emergence and proliferation of wildlife pathogenic outbreaks and zoonosis through informed landscape planning.