Metacercariae of the trematode Ornithodiplostomum ptychocheilus cause a conspicuous enlargement of the cranium of juvenile fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas). Minnows sampled from 2 naturally infected ponds in northern Alberta, Canada, had 12% higher and 7% wider craniums compared to fish from an adjacent, uninfected pond. We tested the prediction that cranial distortion was caused by encystment of metacercariae on the brains of slow-growing minnows in a factorial experiment. Juvenile fish were either exposed once to 120 cercariae or 3 times to 40 cercariae; they were then fed either a low- or high-quantity diet for 8 wk. Results showed that after controlling for host size, cranial heights were affected by infection regime and host diet but not by the infection × diet interaction. Cranial distortion was most prominent in minnows exposed once to cercariae, showing that the rapid, simultaneous growth of metacercariae interfered with the normal development of the cranium. Thus, the expression of the parasite-induced phenotype was context dependent, the result of factors associated with the dynamics of cercariae transmission and host growth rate.

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