Testing the interspecific body size principle in ungulates: the smaller they come, the harder they groom

Tick removal grooming may be centrally regulated by an internal timing mechanism operating to remove ticks before they attach and engorge (programmed grooming model) and/or evoked by cutaneous stimulation from tick bites (stimulus-driven model). The programmed grooming model predicts that organismic and environmental factors that impact the cost–benefit ratio of grooming (e.g. body size and habitat) will influence the rate of tick removal grooming. The body size principle predicts that smaller-sized animals, because of their greater surface-to-mass ratio, should engage in more frequent tick removal grooming than larger-bodied animals in order to compensate for higher costs of tick infestation. The body size principle may be tested intraspecifically between young and adult animals, or interspecifically among species of contrasting body sizes. To rigorously test the interspecific body size prediction, we observed the programmed grooming (oral and scratch grooming) of 25 species (or subspecies) of bovids at a tick-free zoological park in which stimulus-driven grooming was ruled out. Multiple correlation analysis revealed highly significant negative correlations between species-typical mass and mean species grooming rates when habitat was controlled for in the model. Species-typical habitat type (classified along a gradient from most open to most closed) was positively correlated with mean oral grooming rate, indicating that species tended to groom at a higher rate in woodland and forest habitats (where typical tick density would be high) compared with more open environments. Species mass accounted for up to two-thirds of the variation in grooming rate across species, whereas habitat accounted for ca. 20% of variation in oral grooming. Similar results were obtained when the analysis was expanded to include 36 species/subspecies of six different families. The body size principle can therefore account for a large proportion of species-typical differences in programmed grooming rate among ungulates. However, to understand the tick defence adaptations of very large mammals that rarely or never engage in oral or scratch grooming (e.g. elephants, giraffes, rhinoceros), alternative tick defence strategies must be considered, such as thick skin, wallowing, rubbing and tolerance of oxpeckers and other tick-eating birds.

Publish DateJanuary 26, 2022
Last UpdatedJanuary 26, 2022
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