Negative covariance between parasite load and body condition in a population of feral horses.
In wild and domestic animals, gastrointestinal parasites can have significant impacts on host development, condition, health, reproduction and longevity. Improving our understanding of the causes and consequences of individual-level variation in parasite load is therefore of prime interest. Here we investigated the relationship between strongyle fecal egg count (FEC) and body condition in a unique, naturalized population of horses that has never been exposed to anthelmintic drugs (Sable Island, Nova Scotia, Canada). We first quantified variation in FEC and condition for 447 individuals according to intrinsic (sex, age, reproductive status, social status) and extrinsic (group size, location, local density) variables. We then quantified the repeatability of measurements obtained over a field season and tested for covariance between FEC and condition. FECs were high relative to other horse populations (mean eggs per gram±SD=1543.28±209.94). FECs generally decreased with age, were higher in lactating vs non-lactating females, and unexpectedly lower in males in some part of the island. FECs and condition were both spatially structured, with patterns depending on age, sex and reproductive status. FECs and condition were both repeatable. Most notably, FECs and condition were negatively correlated, especially in adult females.