Virulent Disease Epidemics Can Increase Host Density by Depressing Foraging of Hosts

Rachel M. Penczykowski, Marta S. Shocket, Jessica Housley Ochs, Brian C.P. Lemanski, Hema Sundar, Meghan A. Duffy, Spencer R. Hall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


All else equal, parasites that harm host fitness should depress densities of their hosts. However, parasites that alter host traits may increase host density via indirect ecological interactions. Here, we show how depression of foraging rate of infected hosts can produce such a hydra effect. Using a foraging assay, we quantified reduced foraging rates of a zooplankton host infected with a virulent fungal parasite. We then parameterized a dynamical model of hosts, parasites, and resources with this foraging function, showing how foraging depression can create a hydra effect. Mathematically, the hydra arose when increased resource productivity exceeded any increase in resource consumption per host. Therefore, the foraging-mediated hydra effect more likely emerged (1) for hosts that strongly control logistic-like resources and (2) during larger epidemics of moderately virulent parasites. We then analyzed epidemics from 13 fungal epidemics in nature. We found evidence for a foraging-mediated hydra effect: large outbreaks depressed foraging rate and correlated with increased densities of both algal resources and Daphnia hosts. Therefore, depression of the foraging rate of infected hosts can produce higher host densities even during epidemics of parasites that increase host mortality. Such hydras might prevent the collapse of host populations but also could produce higher densities of infected hosts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-90
Number of pages16
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • Compensatory population growth
  • Feeding behavior
  • Host-parasite
  • Hydra effect
  • Illness-mediated anorexia
  • Trait-mediated indirect effect


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