Host behaviour towards infectious conspecifics is a crucial yet overlooked component of pathogen dynamics. Selection is expected to favour individuals who can recognize and avoid infected conspecifics in order to reduce their own risk of infection. However, evidence is scarce and limited to species employing chemical cues. Here, we experimentally examine whether healthy captive house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) preferentially forage near a same-sex, healthy conspecific versus one infected with the directly transmissible pathogen Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG), which causes lethargy and visible conjunctivitis. Interestingly, male house finches strongly preferred feeding near diseased conspecifics, while females showed no preference. This sex difference appeared to be the result of lower aggression rates in diseased males, but not in females. The reduced aggression of diseased males may act as an ‘evolutionary trap’ by presenting a historically beneficial behavioural cue in the context of a new environment, which now includes a recently emerged, potentially fatal pathogen. Since MG can be directly transmitted during feeding, healthy males may inadvertently increase their risk of contracting MG. This behaviour is likely to significantly contribute to the continued persistence of MG epidemics in wild populations.
Keywords: house finch Carpodacus mexicanus, Mycoplasma gallisepticum, disease avoidance, aggression, pathogen transmission, foraging behaviour