A healthy but depleted herd: Predators decrease prey disease and density

Laura K. Lopez, Michael H. Cortez, Turner S. DeBlieux, Ilona A. Menel, Bruce O'Brien, Carla E. Cáceres, Spencer R. Hall, Meghan A. Duffy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The healthy herds hypothesis proposes that predators can reduce parasite prevalence and thereby increase the density of their prey. However, evidence for such predator-driven reductions in the prevalence of prey remains mixed. Furthermore, even less evidence supports increases in prey density during epidemics. Here, we used a planktonic predator–prey–parasite system to experimentally test the healthy herds hypothesis. We manipulated density of a predator (the phantom midge, Chaoborus punctipennis) and parasitism (the virulent fungus Metschnikowia bicuspidata) in experimental assemblages. Because we know natural populations of the prey (Daphnia dentifera) vary in susceptibility to both predator and parasite, we stocked experimental populations with nine genotypes spanning a broad range of susceptibility to both enemies. Predation significantly reduced infection prevalence, eliminating infection at the highest predation level. However, lower parasitism did not increase densities of prey; instead, prey density decreased substantially at the highest predation levels (a major density cost of healthy herds predation). This density result was predicted by a model parameterized for this system. The model specifies three conditions for predation to increase prey density during epidemics: (i) predators selectively feed on infected prey, (ii) consumed infected prey release fewer infectious propagules than unconsumed prey, and (iii) sufficiently low infection prevalence. While the system satisfied the first two conditions, prevalence remained too high to see an increase in prey density with predation. Low prey densities caused by high predation drove increases in algal resources of the prey, fueling greater reproduction, indicating that consumer–resource interactions can complicate predator–prey–parasite dynamics. Overall, in our experiment, predation reduced the prevalence of a virulent parasite but, at the highest levels, also reduced prey density. Hence, while healthy herds predation is possible under some conditions, our empirical results make it clear that the manipulation of predators to reduce parasite prevalence may harm prey density.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere4063
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2023


  • consumer–resource
  • density mediated indirect effects
  • healthy herds
  • host–parasite
  • infection prevalence
  • parasitoid
  • pathogen
  • predation
  • predator spreader

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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