Gradients of environmental stress may affect biotic interactions in unpredictable ways responding to climate variation, depending on the abiotic stress tolerance of interacting partners. Here, we study the effect of local climate on the intensity of feather mites in six mountain passerines along a 1400 m elevational gradient characterized by shifting temperature and rainfall. Although obligatory symbionts of warm-blooded organisms are assumed to live in mild and homeothermic environments, those inhabiting external, non-blood-irrigated body portions of the host organism, such as feather mites, are expected to endure exposure to the direct influence of a fluctuating climate. As expected, feather mite intensity declined with elevation in all bird species, a pattern that was also found in cold-adapted passerines that have typical alpine habits. The elevation cline was mainly explained by a positive effect of the average temperature upon mite intensity in five of the six species studied. Precipitation explained less variance in mite intensity than average temperature, and showed a negative correlation in half of the studied species. We found no climate-driven migration of mites along the wings of birds, no replacement of mite species along elevation gradients and no association with available food resources for mites (estimated by the size of the uropygial gland). This study suggests that ectosymbionts of warm-blooded animals may be highly sensitive to climatic variation and become less abundant under stressful environmental conditions, providing empirical evidence of the decline of specialized biotic interactions among animal species at high elevations. © 2014 Meléndez et al.
Meléndez, L., Laiolo, P., Mironov, S., García, M., Magaña, O., & Jovani, R. (2014). Climate-driven variation in the intensity of a host-symbiont animal interaction along a broad elevation gradient. PLoS ONE, 9(7). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0101942