ZOOLOGIA 27 (2): 151–162, April, 2010
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Parasites, organisms that spend most of their life-time feed-
ing in or on a single individual of another species, may exhibit
the most common mode of life on this planet (PRICE 1980). This
includes diverse groups of organisms, from viruses and bacteria
to worms, plant-feeding insects and parasitic plants. Parasites
have managed to spread across impressively diverse taxonomic
host groups, often reaching remarkable species numbers along
the way. For example, Angiosperms comprise roughly one fourth
of all species on earth, yet most plant species host multiple spe-
cies of specialized plant-feeding insects.
Given the ubiquity of host-parasite interactions, under-
standing the factors that generate, maintain, and constrain
these associations is of primary interest with implications for a
wide range of applied ecological issues, including the dynam-
ics of emerging infectious diseases (BROOKS & FERRAO 2005, BROOKS
et al. 2006a, BROOKS & HOBERG 2007), biological control, bio-
logical introductions and invasions, and biotic responses to
climate change (BROOKS & MCLENNAN 2002). One of the most
obvious and intriguing features of parasitism is pronounced
conservatism in the range of hosts used (high host-specificity),
both on ecological (THOMPSON 1994, 2005) and evolutionary
time-scales (EHRLICH & RAVEN 1964, BROOKS & MCLENNAN 1991,
1993, 2002, THOMPSON 1994, 2005, FUTUYMA & MITTER 1996, JANZ
& NYLIN 1998, WINKLER & MITTER 2008). Not surprisingly, many
think this host specificity holds the key to understanding the
evolution of host-parasite associations – selection for increased
specialization of parasites to their hosts constrains host use
and promotes speciation. However, while this view provides a
mechanism for the evolution of existing interactions (i.e., spe-
cies become increasingly well-adapted to one another once the
interaction originates), it provides no basis for understanding
the origins of novel interactions. Coevolution can be diversi-
fying, so that local selection in different parts of a geographic
range can lead to a set of daughter populations that are locally
adapted to different resources (THOMPSON 1994, 2005, BENKMAN
1999, GODSOE et al. 2008). But how the diversified interaction
(host range) of the mother species came into existence in the
first place must still be explained. Although coevolution can
give rise to “new” species interactions in cases where the host
and parasite speciate in tandem, there is little evidence for
cospeciation as a major factor in host-parasite evolution (HOBERG
& BROOKS 2008, 2010). Indeed, ‘cospeciation’ was first proposed
How specialists can be generalists: resolving the “parasite paradox” and
implications for emerging infectious disease
Salvatore J. Agosta1, 3; Niklas Janz2 & Daniel R. Brooks1
1 Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto. Toronto, ON M5S 3G5, Canada.
2 Department of Zoology, Stockholm University. 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden. E-mail: email@example.com
3 Corresponding author. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
ABSTRACT. The parasite paradox arises from the dual observations that parasites (broadly construed, including phy-
tophagous insects) are resource specialists with restricted host ranges, and yet shifts onto relatively unrelated hosts are
common in the phylogenetic diversification of parasite lineages and directly observable in ecological time. We synthe-
size the emerging solution to this paradox: phenotypic flexibility and phylogenetic conservatism in traits related to
resource use, grouped under the term ecological fitting, provide substantial opportunities for rapid host switching in
changing environments, in the absence of the evolution of novel host-utilization capabilities. We discuss mechanisms
behind ecological fitting, its implications for defining specialists and generalists, and briefly review empirical examples
of host shifts in the context of ecological fitting. We conclude that host shifts via ecological fitting provide the fuel for
the expansion phase of the recently proposed oscillation hypothesis of host range and speciation, and, more generally,
the generation of novel combinations of interacting species within the geographic mosaic theory of coevolution. Finally,
we conclude that taxon pulses, driven by climate change and large-scale ecological perturbation are drivers of biotic
mixing and resultant ecological fitting, which leads to increased rates of rapid host switching, including the agents of
Emerging Infectious Disease.
KEY WORDS. Climate change; coevolution; ecological fitting; host shift; plant-insect interactions; sloppy fitness.
152 S. J. Agosta et al.
ZOOLOGIA 27 (2): 151–162, April, 2010
as a descriptive term for cases in which hosts and parasites
experienced concomitant speciation events, such as being af-
fected by the same vicariance event, not as an evolutionary
mechanism (BROOKS 1979). Thus the issue of how novel inter-
actions arise remains unresolved. Our aims are to (1) synthe-
size the resolution to this problem and (2) address the implica-
tions for emerging infectious disease in humans.
THE PARADOX – HOST SHIFTS SHOULD BE DIFFICULT TO ACHIEVE
Most parasites appear to be resource specialists. The over-
whelming majority of plant-feeding insects, for example, use
only a tiny fraction of the available plant species in the habitat
(THOMPSON 1994, NOVOTNY et al. 2005, DYER et al. 2007, JANZEN &
HALLWACHS 2009). Not surprisingly, this pattern has given rise to
the long-standing idea that specialization is a one-way street, an
evolutionary dead-end where parasites become increasingly well-
adapted to their hosts at the expense of the ability to perform
on alternative hosts. The idea of specialization as a dead-end
dates back to the 19th century (THOMPSON 1994) and some re-
cent studies have reported support for the ‘dead-end’ hypoth-
esis (MORAN 1988, WIEGMANN et al. 1993, KELLEY & FARRELL 1998).
Other studies, however, conclude that generalized lineages are
often derived from specialists (SCHEFFER & WIEGMANN 2000, JANZ et
al. 2001, TERMONIA et al. 2001, RADTKE et al. 2002, KERGOAT et al.
2005, YOTOKO et al. 2005). Many groups exhibit higher transi-
tion rates from generalization to specialization than vice versa,
but host specialization appears to be a dynamic trait with no
inherent necessary directionality (JANZ et al. 2001, NOSIL 2002,
NOSIL & MOOERS 2005). If this is the case, why are broad host
ranges so rare? There are obvious advantages of wider niches,
such as more abundant and reliable food supplies or oviposition
sites, so something must consistently select against them (FUTUYMA
& MORENO 1988). A great deal of attention has been devoted to
this question, and it now appears clear that selection should
favor increased host specificity over time for a variety of reasons
(FUTUYMA & MORENO 1988, BERNAYS 1989, 2001, VIA 1991, AGRAWAL
2000, JANZ 2002, JANZ et al. 2005). Paradoxically, the successful
solution to the original problem of widespread specialization
has in many ways led to the new problem of understanding
why there are exceptions at all (JOHANSSON et al. 2007, SINGER 2008).
These exceptions are important, because without them
there would be no host shifts. Every host shift must begin with
colonization (a process that leads to the establishment of a new,
persistent interaction), during which the parasite should re-
tain the capacity to use both the ancestral and novel host.
Multiple host use following such colonization may be brief or
it may be prolonged (JANZ et al. 2006, NYLIN & JANZ 2009), but
host shifts must begin with a host range expansion. Initially,
additional hosts should typically be inferior alternatives to the
original host, to which the parasite is specifically adapted, and
special circumstances should be needed to incorporate such a
host into the repertoire. Yet, host shifts and host range expan-
sions do occur, and can happen rapidly (THOMPSON 1998).
Available data on the rate of host shifts are discordant.
Phylogenetic comparative studies of hosts and parasites dem-
onstrate two macroevolutionary patterns: (1) high host spe-
cialization and conservatism in host use, as well as (2) abun-
dant evidence of switching onto relatively unrelated hosts that
in some cases seems to have been the primary driver of diversi-
fication (AGOSTA 2006, JANZ et al. 2006, JANZ & NYLIN 2008, HOBERG
& BROOKS 2008, WINKLER & MITTER 2008, NYMAN 2009). As a cor-
ollary, objective evidence for cospeciation has been rare even
among intimately associated parasites, such as helminths in-
habiting vertebrates (BROOKS & MCLENNAN 1991, 1993, 2002,
BROOKS et al. 2006b, BROOKS & VAN VELLER 2008, HOBERG & BROOKS
2008, 2010). For less intimate associations, such as among plants
and many plant-feeding insects, it has long been recognized
that cospeciation cannot have been a major source of diversifi-
cation (AGOSTA 2006, NYMAN 2009). Coupled with abundant
ecological evidence of rapid shifts to novel hosts, such as in-
troduced plants (TABASHNIK 1983, SINGER et al. 1993, CARROLL et
al. 1997, FOX et al. 1997, VAN KLINKEN & EDWARDS 2002, AGOSTA
2006, STRAUSS et al. 2006) and animals (CORNELL & HAWKINS 1993,
KELLY et al. 2009), these observations suggest that host shifts
are common in the interaction between hosts and parasites.
Colonization of novel hosts must be an important driving force
behind the diversification of the interactions themselves (by
generating novel species associations) as well as the taxa in-
volved (by increasing net speciation rates). This is the ‘parasite
paradox’: how do highly specialized parasites otherwise shift
to novel hosts?
We present what we consider the broad outlines of an
emerging synthesis that resolves the parasite paradox without
proposing novel mechanisms. Various parts of this synthesis
have been proposed in the decades since EHRLICH & RAVEN (1964)
observed broad taxonomic correspondence between butterflies,
their host plants, and plant secondary chemistry. They posited
that associations between plants and plant-feeding insects re-
sult largely from a coevolutionary arms race that leads to in-
creased specialization and tends to restrict associations phylo-
genetically. Once that idea became internalized as the
overarching mechanism behind host-parasite associations,
many researchers began to scrutinize it and conclude that (1)
host-parasite associations are generally more labile than ex-
pected under models of strict one-on-one coevolution between
species, resulting in (2) historically and ecologically complex
patterns of associations (e.g., STRONG 1979, HOLMES & PRICE 1980,
JANZEN 1980, 1985, JERMY 1984, BROOKS 1985; review in BROOKS &
MCLENNAN 2002). In addition, the development of modern phy-
logenetic comparative approaches to studying host-parasite
evolution has greatly increased the capacity to understand the
history and structure of these associations empirically (BROOKS
& MCLENNAN 1991, 2002).
We first review what is needed to complete a shift to a
novel host if the shift requires newly evolved abilities to utilize
the novel resource. In this case, a full host shift will require
153How specialists can be generalists
ZOOLOGIA 27 (2): 151–162, April, 2010
more or less simultaneous correlated evolution across a num-
ber of traits to enable it to locate the new resource, identify it
as a possible host, trigger oviposition and allow appropriate
handling during oviposition. In addition, offspring finding
themselves on this novel resource will need to be triggered to
initiate feeding (and must be physically capable of doing so,
e.g. to penetrate the cuticle), and their metabolic system will
have to be able to digest the new resource and overcome its
chemical defense (or immune system). Each new host may come
with a different set of external enemies requiring new meth-
ods of defense or evasion and a different micro-habitat requir-
ing novel physiological adaptations. Such correlated changes
occurring simultaneously across all these sets of characters
ought to be so unlikely that host shifts ought to border on the
Clearly, host shifts are not impossible. We assume host
shifts comprise two different “events”: (1) colonization of the
novel host (host range expansion) followed by (2) loss of the
ancestral host (host specialization). Hence, for a host shift to
be completed, there must first be a mechanism for generaliza-
tion (increased diet breadth) and then a mechanism for spe-
cialization (decreased diet breadth). Furthermore, in order for
specialization not to be an evolutionary dead-end, these mecha-
nisms must be at least partly independent, so specialists main-
tain the potential to become generalists and generalists main-
tain the potential to become specialists. This links host shifts
to the processes that determine host specificity.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the capacity to
utilize the novel host must have existed before a successful
shift was initiated. While this may seem counterintuitive,
mechanisms allowing organisms to colonize and persist in novel
environments do exist. For example, novel host plants can be
added through oviposition “mistakes” (LARSSON & EKBOM 1995)
if they can be metabolized as a side-effect of existing machin-
ery – a form of phenotypic plasticity (WEST-EBERHARD 2003, NYLIN
& JANZ 2009).
Phenotypic plasticity, in addition to factors discussed be-
low, provides a mechanistic basis for an ecological concept called
‘ecological fitting’ (JANZEN 1985). Ecological fitting describes the
case when an organism interacts with its environment in a way
that seems to indicate adaptation or more generally a shared
evolutionary history (e.g., between a parasite and its host), when
in fact the traits relevant to the interaction evolved elsewhere
with different species or under different conditions. Such inter-
actions can appear to be coevolved over extended evolutionary
time (JANZEN 1980), when in fact they may be the result of a
relatively recent ecological “fit”, possibly followed by rapid lo-
cal adaptation. JANZEN (1980, 1985) suggested that species often
form these ecologically fit associations and that ecological fit-
ting plays a major role in shaping communities.
When organisms encounter novel environmental con-
ditions – a new habitat, a changed climate, a change in re-
sources – they survive and persist (achieve realized fitness) where
and if they “fit” by means of characters they already possess.
In other words, successful establishment in a novel environ-
ment requires species having reaction norms that already in-
clude conditions in the novel environment. For the species to
persist, colonists facing ecological novelty must achieve real-
ized fitness within a more or less evolutionarily unfamiliar web
of species (predators, prey, competitors, symbionts, etc.) using
traits they already possess. Thus within any given ecological
community, and depending on time and contingency, at least
some traits relevant to observed species interactions will have
evolved elsewhere under different conditions, but were later
co-opted (MAYNARD SMITH & SZATHMARY 1995) or exapted (GOULD
& VRBA 1982) to form new, ecologically fit, interactions (JANZEN
Ecological and macroevolutionary evidence for ecologi-
cal fitting among hosts and parasites is abundant (AGOSTA 2006,
HOBERG & BROOKS 2008, 2010, KELLY et al. 2009). This suggests
that host shifts are often initiated because the parasite is
exapted, or “preadapted” to the novel resource. The novel host
might share important characteristics with the current host or
might have been used in the past (FUTUYMA et al. 1995, FUTUYMA
& MITTER 1996, JANZ et al. 2001, WAHLBERG 2001, BROOKS &
MCLENNAN 2002, RADTKE et al. 2002), or the parasite might for-
tuitously possess capabilities to use a novel resource (AGOSTA &
KLEMENS 2008, 2009).
AGOSTA & KLEMENS (2008) proposed a general framework
for ecological fitting as a mechanism behind the assembly of
ecological communities and the formation of novel interac-
tions between species within communities. They posited three
factors giving rise to ecological fitting and the ability of organ-
isms (genotypes) to achieve realized fitness under novel condi-
tions (e.g., a novel host). First, phenotypic plasticity can allow
organisms to mount a response to novel conditions (WEST-
EBERHARD 2003). Second, correlated trait evolution (LANDE &
ARNOLD 1983) can produce phenotypes that are “preadapted”
to some future novel condition. Third, phylogenetic conserva-
tism in traits related to resource use, including design con-
straints (e.g., the ‘spandrels’ of GOULD & LEWONTIN 1979) and
retention of traits from past selection pressures (e.g., the ‘anach-
ronisms’ of JANZEN & MARTIN 1982), provide the latent ability to
perform under apparently novel conditions, such as a parasite
encountering a new host that is actually the same or sufficiently
similar to some ancestral host (BROOKS & MCLENNAN 2002). These
capacities produce organisms possessing potential fitness out-
side the range of conditions in which the species evolved. AGOSTA
& KLEMENS (2008) termed this region of fitness space ‘sloppy
fitness space,’ a by-product of direct selection under some other
set of conditions (the ancestral ‘operative’ environment). The
operative environment comprises all components defining a
host as a resource and therefore the range of host-related vari-
154 S. J. Agosta et al.
ZOOLOGIA 27 (2): 151–162, April, 2010
ables affecting parasite evolution. In figure 1a, a parasite evolves
in response to the ancestral host operative environment de-
fined by the black circle, but as a consequence, also has poten-
tial fitness (sloppy fitness space) beyond the range of condi-
tions encountered with the ancestral host. Thus, the parasite
has some ability to perform and persist on other hosts that
represent a novel operative environment (host 2 in Fig. 1e; host
2 and 3 in Fig. 1f), in addition to the ability to add new hosts
representing the same or highly similar operative environments
(host 1 in Fig. 1 d-f).
Armed with adaptations to their ancestral hosts and the
sloppy fitness space that results, parasites can ecologically fit
with new hosts in at least two ways (AGOSTA & KLEMENS 2008).
First, due to phylogenetic conservatism or convergence of host
resources, parasites may shift to a new host species because the
new host possesses the same (or highly similar) resources as
the old host: ecological fitting via resource tracking (host 1 in
Fig. 1d-f). The possibility that parasites track plesiomorphic re-
sources both ecologically and evolutionarily was termed ‘co-
accommodation’ by BROOKS (1979) and more often than not
Figure 1. A schematic illustration showing two dimensions of the operative environment associated with fictional host resources (black
circles). Sloppy fitness space (see text) can allow realized fitness in an area outside the operative environment to which the parasite is
adapted (light grey circles). Panels a, d, and g illustrate a specialist, adapted to a single host resource, panels b, e and h illustrate a
polyspecialist that has adapted independently to three different resources, and panels c, f and i illustrate a true generalist with a more
general host recognition and tolerance system that allows it to utilize any resource that falls within the dark grey area. The open circles
in panels d-f represent three novel resources. The specialist in panel d can colonize resource 1 (which is more or less identical to the
ancestral resource) but not resource 2 and 3. The polyspecialist in panel e can colonize resource 1, but also resource 2 that falls within
its sloppy fitness space, and the generalist in panel f can colonize all three resources. In panels g-i only one host is available, and all three
parasite species will appear to be specialists, but their ecological and evolutionary potential will be very different.
155How specialists can be generalists
ZOOLOGIA 27 (2): 151–162, April, 2010
parasites seem to do so (reviewed in BROOKS & MCLENNAN 2002;
see also BROOKS et al. 2006a,b, HOBERG & BROOKS 2008, 2010).
This is perhaps most evident when host chemistry or ecology
takes priority over host phylogeny in explaining host-parasite
associations (e.g., BECCERA 1997, WAHLBERG 2001, BROOKS et al.
Second, parasites may use sloppy fitness space to shift onto
new hosts representing a novel resource: ecological fitting via
sloppy fitness space (host 2 in Fig. 1e; host 2 and 3 in Fig. 1f). In
either case, observed interactions between hosts and parasites
will appear to be newly evolved, but are products of ecological
fitting. Ecological fitting via resource tracking and via sloppy
fitness space are not mutually exclusive and may represent two
ends of a continuum (AGOSTA & KLEMENS 2008). A typical host
shift may involve both tracking plesiomorphic resources and
use of sloppy fitness space. In the case of ecological fitting via
resource tracking, the new host may be novel only in the sense
that it is a different species – from the perspective of the parasite
it may not be novel at all. This situation illustrates how para-
sites can shift to relatively unrelated hosts if the operative envi-
ronments (e.g., chemicals recognized as oviposition stimulants:
MURPHY & FEENY 2006) are plesiomorphic or convergent. It also
illustrates conceptual problems with our understanding of what
constitutes specialists and generalists.
The terms specialist and generalist are vaguely defined,
and used variously by researchers. Typically the terms refer to
the dimension of niche width that reflects diet. Hosts repre-
sent resources, and thus an operational defintion of host-
speficity should ideally reflect resource distributions and re-
source heterogeneity (NYMAN 2009). However, host-specificity
is most often simply measured as the number of hosts in a
parasite’s repertoire. As host species are themselves hierarchi-
cally related, counting host species may be misleading, and
some authors have adopted host use indices that to various
extents account for host relatedness (SYMONS & BECCALONI 1999,
JANZ et al. 2001, 2006). More important is that species with
virtually identical present-day host ranges can achieve them
in fundamentally different ways, and as a consequence have
divergent evolutionary potentials. In figure 1g-i, all three para-
sites are specialists, each using one host species. However, while
the parasite in figure 1g is restricted to one host due to a nar-
row niche width, the other two are restricted to this host be-
cause it is the only host locally available.
Two parasite species in figure 1b and c use the same three
host species, but whereas the parasite in figure 1c is a true gen-
eralist adapted to a wide niche, the host in figure 1b is best
described as a ‘polyspecialist’, as it has genetically indepen-
dent adaptive traits for all three niches (WEST-EBERHARD 2003,
NYLIN & JANZ 2009). The true generalist (Fig. 1c) presumably
has evolved a more general host recognition and tolerance sys-
tem that allows it to feed on any host that falls within the grey
circle. The polyspecialist (Fig. 1b) uses these three hosts be-
cause it has adapted independently to all three.
BROOKS & MCLENNAN (2002) suggested that, hidden among
the “true” specialists and generalists are ‘faux specialists’ and
‘faux generalists’. Faux specialists are generalists restricted to a
few or a single resource by ecological factors, such as competi-
tion, local micro-climate or non-concordant distributional ranges
(Fig. 1h-i). Faux generalists are specialists specialized on a re-
source that is phylogenetically widespread. Parasites are not spe-
cialized on particular host species; they are specialized on re-
sources that may or may not be shared among several species
(NYMAN 2009). In some cases, a plesiomorphic resource can be
shared among a set of hosts to the extent that, from the parasite’s
perspective, they are identical and interchangeable. In other cases
there will be a quantitative difference between host species in
the amount of the resource(s) they possess. For faux generalists
and faux specialists, host shifts can be initiated simply by a
change in ecological circumstances (e.g., a shift in local host
availability or local extinction of a competitor).
Observing ecological fitting
Host shifts are difficult to observe. We often must be con-
tent with scattered snapshots from different stages of the pro-
cess to draw a composite picture of the whole process. Never-
theless, researchers have occasionally observed a host shift from
the initial colonization to the final (local) loss of the ancestral
host. The butterfly Euphydryas editha Boisduval, 1852 occurs in
a fragmented population structure across the western USA and
Canada. Host use has been studied extensively in several popu-
lations over many years (SINGER 2003, SINGER et al. 2008). Singer
and colleagues have observed two instances of
anthropogenically-induced shifts in host use. In one case, the
local flora was altered by the introduction of an exotic plant,
and in the other logging removed the original host (SINGER et
al. 2008). In both cases, at least some of the local E. editha
accepted a novel host for oviposition and survived on it at first
encounter (SINGER et al. 2008). Thus, the initial stage of the colo-
nization occurred through ecological, not evolutionary change.
Transfer to a novel environment may remove the ances-
tral host and offer alternatives, but more often a parasite popu-
lation should come into contact with a novel host in sympatry
with the ancestral host. ANTONOVICS et al. (2002) showed that
the recent shift by the anther-smut disease Microbotryum
violaceum (Pers.) G. Demi & Oberw., 1982 from the ancestral
host Silene alba Poir. to S. vulgaris (Moench) Garcke was con-
tingent on local scale co-occurrence of both species. The patho-
gen was imperfectly adapted to its new host and susceptibility
to the pathogen varied considerably. Similarly, some popula-
tions of the prodoxid moth Greya politella Walsingham, 1888
in central Idaho have shifted from the ancestral host
Lithophragma parviflorum (Hook.) Nutt. Ex Torr. & A. Gray to
the related Heuchera grossulariifolia Rydb. In this case, popula-
tions feeding on novel hosts are locally adapted to them, and
preference for tetraploid variants seem to have evolved inde-
pendently in several populations (SEGRAVES et al. 1999, NUISMER
& THOMPSON 2001). Lithophragma-feeding populations exposed
156 S. J. Agosta et al.
ZOOLOGIA 27 (2): 151–162, April, 2010
to the novel host oviposited in it to a low degree, but did not
differentiate between plants of different ploidies (JANZ & TH-
OMPSON 2002). Hence, the shift likely was initiated by local con-
tingency, and local preference for tetraploid variants of the
novel host have evolved independently after the initial coloni-
zation (THOMPSON et al. 2004). These examples suggest host shifts
initiated without any evolutionary change, through ecologi-
cal fitting, followed by rapid evolution of traits associated with
host use (SINGER et al. 2008, ANTONOVICS et al. 2002, THOMPSON et
Achieving the fit
As mentioned above, host use involves a number of dif-
ferent processes that must all function in concert. A potential
host may possess some but not all of the required resources.
For a phytophagous insect, the first step towards a host shift
involves a failure to fully discriminate against a plant sympat-
ric with the ancestral host, at least in part of the insect’s geo-
graphic distribution (LARSSON & EKBOM 1995). If offspring have
realized fitness on the new plant, natural selection can then
begin playing a role in modifying traits involved in host use
on this plant, through genetic accommodation and later pos-
sibly through character release, allowing utilization of the novel
plant to evolve more independently (WEST-EBERHARD 2003, NYLIN
& JANZ 2009).
Host shifts with loss of the ancestral host likely require
evolutionary modification of host utilization traits after the
initial colonization. The extent to which such modification
will happen will depend on both local circumstances and evo-
lutionary history. The butterfly Pieris napi Linnaeus, 1758 regu-
larly oviposited on the introduced Thlaspi arvense Linnaeus,
although the plant was lethal for the larvae (CHEW 1977), and
apparently this situation has not changed (CAROL BOGGS, per-
sonal communication). Presumably, the introduced plant con-
tains a similar oviposition “resource” as local hosts, but a dif-
ferent larval feeding “resource”. Mortality is 100%, leaving no
opportunity for evolutionary modification enabling a host shift.
FOX et al. (1997) reported that initial colonization of Chloroleucon
ebano (Berland.) L. Rico by the seed beetle Stator limbatus Horn,
1873 depended on pre-existing variance in the capacity to ac-
cept and utilize this novel host, and populations expanding
their host range to include this species had not locally adapted
to it. One reason for the lack of local adaptation was a signifi-
cant non-genetic effect of maternal host plant on offspring
survival on the novel host (FOX et al. 1997). Hence, successful
establishment on C. ebano depends on local co-occurrence of
one of the other hosts in the repertoire of S. limbatus.
These examples show that successful host shifts depend
on the history of the association, as well on life history, abun-
dance and distribution of the species involved. Hence, to un-
derstand and possibly predict host shifts, both ecological (eco-
logical fitting, local contingency) and evolutionary (evolution-
ary past, degree of plasticity, genetic variation) processes need
to be considered (BROOKS & MCLENNAN 2002).
IMPLICATIONS FOR EMERGING INFECTIOUS DISEASE
Our thesis is that otherwise specialized parasites can shift
rapidly to novel (naïve) hosts via ecological fitting and that these
host shifts play an “important” role in the ecology and evolu-
tion of host-parasite associations. “Important” implies that eco-
logical fitting between hosts and parasites occurs with high
enough frequency to influence host range dynamics and the
diversity of species and interactions among species. Although
no quantitative statement of this importance can be made, it is
clear from the above discussion that shifts onto relatively unre-
lated hosts can be inferred routinely in phylogenetic analyses
and observed readily in contemporary ecological time. These
observations are fundamental for emerging infectious disease
(EID) studies: EID arise when parasite species begin infecting
and causing disease in host species with which they have no
previous history of association. If the nature of host specificity
is such that the potential for ecological fitting is small, then
host shifts are likely to be rare and attention can be focused on
managing each EID as it emerges. Little attention need be paid
to its origins, beyond a search for the taxonomic identity of the
parasite acting as the pathogen, and its immediate reservoir.
However, if the nature of host specificity is such that the poten-
tial for ecological fitting is large, then host shifts are likely to be
common, and a more predictive, pre-emptive framework for
managing EID will be needed, greatly increasing the challenge
of an already difficult problem.
As discussed earlier, empirical studies indicate that few
parasite groups conform to the phylogenetic patterns of host-
parasite associations expected if opportunities for ecological
fitting were relatively rare. Clades such as ectoparasitic
arthropods which exhibit limited host switching (HAFNER &
NADLER 1988, PATTERSON & POULIN 1999, PAGE 2003), although
interesting to evolutionary biologists and ecologists, cannot
form the general conceptual framework for dealing with EID
because they are rare. The majority of cases indicate substan-
tial host switching throughout history, and extensive diversifi-
cation through cospeciation appears to be limited (reviewed in
BROOKS & MCLENNAN 1993, HOBERG & KLASSEN 2002, ZARLENGA et
Climate change and ecological perturbation as
drivers of EID
As the human population grows daily, its ecological and
technogical footprint deepens. Introducing ourselves and other
species into novel regions of the biosphere accelerates land-
scape alteration and ecological perturbation, which in global
ecosystems can initiate events that link climate change, loss of
biodiversity and EID (DASZAK et al. 2000, HARVELL et al. 2002,
WOOLHOUSE 2002, EPSTEIN et al. 2003, BROOKS & FERRAO 2005,
LOVEJOY & HANNAH 2005, BROOKS & HOBERG 2006, PARMESAN 2006,
POUNDS et al. 2006). Such events include increased biotic mix-
ing of evolutionarily unfamiliar species, and therefore increased
opportunities for parasites and pathogens to find and infect
157How specialists can be generalists
ZOOLOGIA 27 (2): 151–162, April, 2010
novel hosts. How we adapt to these changes will depend on
how well we understand and use knowledge of the responses
of host-parasite systems during episodes of large-scale climate
and environmental change.
The taxon pulse hypothesis (ERWIN et al. 1979, ERWIN 1981)
predicts that historical biogeographic patterns result from al-
ternating episodes of biotic expansion and isolation, which lead
to complex geographic distributions. Recent empirical studies
in historical biogeography that document marked influence of
taxon pulses (HOBERG 1995, BOUCHARD et al. 2004, BROOKS & FERRAO
2005, BROOKS & FOLINSBEE 2005, HALAS et al. 2005, ZARLENGA et al.
2006, FOLINSBEE & BROOKS 2007) implicate geological phenom-
ena, such as tectonic changes and climatological phenomena,
including global or regional climate change, as taxon pulse
drivers. During biotic expansion phases, susceptible hosts come
into contact with novel (for them) parasites. Host switching
occurs rapidly, without the need for any evolutionary innova-
tion. For example, alternating cycles of biotic expansion and
isolation across Beringia at the crossroads of the northern con-
tinents are clearly associated with cyclical episodes of climate
change in the Pleistocene epoch (HOBERG 1995, ZARLENGA et al.
2006, WALTARI et al. 2007, COOK et al. 2005). Natural selection
acts only on what has happened, so there will have been no
opportunity for the evolution of resistance to, or tolerance of,
the parasite by the new hosts. This suggests that most host
switching occurs in conjunction with episodes of global cli-
mate change and associated biotic expansion and altered
trophic relationships. This has been demonstrated for tape-
worms (Taenia spp.) in humans, hookworms (Oesophagostomum
Raillet & Henry, 1913) and pinworms (Enterobius Leach, 1853)
in hominoids, and nematodes (Trichinella Railliet, 1895) in car-
nivores (HOBERG et al. 2001, BROOKS & FERRAO 2005, BROOKS &
FOLINSBEE 2005, ZARLENGA et al. 2006, FOLINSBEE & BROOKS 2007).
The emerging story of human parasites is one of ancestral, eco-
logical associations with secondary host switches since the
Pliocene associated with ecological perturbation.
More recent human activities associated with the evolu-
tion of agriculture, domesticated livestock, urbanization, and
now global climate change have served to broaden the arena
and disseminate the risk for EID on a global scale. If current
climate changes have a prolonged duration and global scope,
we should expect an increase in EID. Predicted responses to
climate change by hosts and parasites include biotic expan-
sion with geographic colonization, shifting patterns of geo-
graphic range, changing phenology and habitat use, modifica-
tion of ecotones and contact zones (PARMESAN 2006, HOBERG &
BROOKS 2008), and local extinction (POUNDS et al. 2006,
MARCOGLIESE 2001). Global and regional climate change events
have had major influences on biotic structure and the distri-
bution of host-parasite assemblages throughout earth history
(HOBERG & BROOKS 2008), but recent cases might result from
anthropogenic effects beyond those caused by climate warm-
ing (CLEAVELAND et al. 2001, DOBSON & FOUFOPOULUS 2001, HAYDON
et al. 2002, LAFFERTY et al. 2004, KUTZ et al. 2004). Microevolu-
tionary responses including mosaic-like, ephemeral patterns
of local adaptation, directional changes in gene frequencies
through mutation, and selection for parasites associated with
emergence (DOBSON & FOUFOPOULUS 2001, THOMPSON 2005) have
not yet been linked directly to climate change. However, such
changes could begin with host shifts and outbreaks of disease
on local spatial and fine temporal scales, leading to ‘mosaics
of emergence’ (THOMPSON 2005, HOBERG & BROOKS 2008). New
associations might proliferate and emerge through ecological
fitting, potentially associated with disease in a changing array
of ‘reservoir’ hosts (DOBSON & FOUFOPOULUS 2001, HAYDON et al.
CONCLUSIONS – THE BIG PICTURE
Complete understanding of the complex history of host-
parasite associations requires consideration of multiple, non-
mutually exclusive evolutionary and ecological mechanisms
and phenomena (BROOKS & MCLENNAN 2002, BROOKS et al. 2006b,
HOBERG & BROOKS 2008, BROOKS & HOBERG 2008), but we believe
that host shifts via ecological fitting provide a missing link in
our general understanding of the evolution and diversification
of host-parasite interactions. When ecological fitting provides
the necessary first step in the colonization process by initiat-
ing a host shift, it also provides essential raw material for co-
evolutionary interactions. Ecological fitting allows genotypes
to be exposed to novel selection regimes.
The geographic mosaic theory of coevolution (THOMPSON
1994, 2005) emphasizes the interplay between local adapta-
tion and gene flow in geographically structured populations.
Species can interact in different ways, and with different spe-
cies in different parts of its geographic range. This mosaic of
interactions can lead to the buildup and breakdown of locally
adapted coevolutionary hot spots depending on gene flow and
the local presence or absence of other interacting species (TH-
OMPSON & FERNANDEZ 2006). This perspective provides an appre-
ciation for the observation that polyphagous species are often
comprised of geographically-structured populations associated
with small sub-sets of the total species in the parasites host
range (FOX & MORROW 1981). Raw material for coevolution,
however, must be constantly regenerated through colonization
of novel resources in parts of a species geographic distribution
(JANZ & THOMPSON 2002, SINGER et al. 2008), which is made pos-
sible by ecological fitting via resource tracking and the explo-
ration of sloppy fitness space. Coevolutionary processes can
buffer a species against fragmentation, or promote diversifica-
tion depending on the nature and strength of processes acting
on local and regional scales (THOMPSON 1994, 2005, BENKMAN
1999, GODSOE et al. 2008). Host colonization by ecological fit-
ting promotes diversification only to the extent that the geo-
graphic mosaic allows local adaptation to newly formed hosts
and sufficient isolation from other populations (AGOSTA &
158 S. J. Agosta et al.
ZOOLOGIA 27 (2): 151–162, April, 2010
Host shifts initiated by ecological fitting are not an end-
point, but rather one step in the process that fuels biological
expansion and generates novel combinations of interacting
species. From these novel interactions, ecological fitting can
promote evolutionary stasis (e.g., if there are many ecologi-
cally fit populations connected by sufficient gene flow) or fa-
cilitate evolutionary diversity, through subsequent divergent
local adaptation (AGOSTA & KLEMENS 2008). JANZ et al. (2006),
JANZ & NYLIN (2008), and NYLIN & JANZ (2009) recently proposed
that diversification in these systems is driven by repeated “os-
cillations” in host range. Coupled with taxon pulses, the oscil-
lation hypothesis predicts phases of host expansion during
geographic range expansion followed by phases of host spe-
cialization during geographic isolation (or, alternatively, sym-
patric speciation by host race formation). As with the geo-
graphic mosaic concept (THOMPSON 2005), the oscillation hy-
pothesis relies on constant regeneration of variation in host
use; it is the diversification of host use that drives diversifica-
tion of species whether the actual speciation process relies on
allopatric or non-allopatric modes (JANZ & NYLIN 2008).
In terms of EID, climate and disturbance driven taxon
pulses in geographic range and oscillations in host range can be
expected to influence their frequency, whereby periods of range
shifts and expansions increase biotic mixing and the opportu-
nities for ecological fitting to occur. The current EID crisis is
“new” only in the sense that this is the first such event that
scientists have witnessed directly. Previous episodes through
earth history of global climate change and ecological perturba-
tion, broadly defined, have been associated with environmental
disruptions that could have led to EID (BROOKS & HOBERG 2006,
HOBERG & BROOKS 2008). From an epidemiological standpoint,
episodes of global climate change should be expected to be as-
sociated with the origins of new host-parasite associations and
bursts of EID. The combination of taxon pulses and ecological
fitting suggests that host and parasite species with the greatest
ability to disperse should be the primary source of EID (BROOKS &
HOBERG 2006, DOBSON & FOUFOPOULUS 2001, FENTON & PEDERSEN
2005). Paleontological studies suggest that species with large
geographic ranges and with high ability to disperse are most
successful at surviving large scale environmental perturbation
and mass extinctions (STIGALL & LIEBERMAN 2006). Thus, the spe-
cies most successful at surviving global climate changes will be
the primary sources of EID, so host extinction will not limit the
risk of EID. From the standpoint of taxon pulses and ecological
fitting, the planet is an evolutionary and ecological minefield of
EID through which millions of people wander daily.
We thank the people who hosted and attended the 2008
“Blod Bad” conference in Tovetorp, Sweden for providing a
stimulating atmosphere for discussing these ideas and a forum
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