Whirling disease, caused by the parasite Myxobolus cerebralis, has infected rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and other salmonid fish in the western United States, often with devastating results to native populations but without a discernible spatial pattern. The parasite develops in a complex 2-host system in which the aquatic oligochaete Tubifex tubifex is an obligate host. Because substantial differences in whirling disease severity in different areas of North America did not seem explainable by environmental factors or features of the parasite or its fish host, we sought to determine whether ecological or genetic variation within oligochaete host populations may be responsible. We found large differences in compatibility between the parasite and various laboratory strains of T. tubifex that were established from geographic regions with different whirling disease histories. Moreover, 2 closely related species of tubificids, Limnodrilus hoffmeisteri and Ilyodrilus templetoni, which occur naturally in mixed species assemblages with T. tubifex, were incompatible with M. cerebralis. Virulence of the parasite was directly correlated with the numbers of triactinomyxon spores that developed within each strain of T. tubifex. Thus, the level of virulence was directly related to the compatibility between the host strain and the parasite. Genetic analyses revealed relationships that were in agreement with the level of parasite production. Differences in compatibilities between oligochaetes and M. cerebralis may contribute to the spatial variance in the severity of the disease among salmonid populations.

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