Coevolutionary Theory of Hosts and Parasites

Lydia Buckingham, Ben Ashby

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

18 Citations (SciVal)


Host and parasite evolution are closely intertwined, with selection for adaptations and counter-adaptations forming a coevolutionary feedback loop. Coevolutionary dynamics are often difficult to intuit due to these feedbacks and are hard to demonstrate empirically in most systems. Theoretical models have therefore played a crucial role in shaping our understanding of host–parasite coevolution. Theoretical models vary widely in their assumptions, approaches and aims, and such variety makes it difficult, especially for non-theoreticians and those new to the field, to: (1) understand how model approaches relate to one another; (2) identify key modelling assumptions; (3) determine how model assumptions relate to biological systems; and (4) reconcile the results of different models with contrasting assumptions. In this review, we identify important model features, highlight key results and predictions and describe how these pertain to model assumptions. We carry out a literature survey of theoretical studies published since the 1950s (n = 219 papers) to support our analysis. We identify two particularly important features of models that tend to have a significant qualitative impact on the outcome of host–parasite coevolution: population dynamics and the genetic basis of infection. We also highlight the importance of other modelling features, such as stochasticity and whether time proceeds continuously or in discrete steps, that have received less attention but can drastically alter coevolutionary dynamics. We finish by summarizing recent developments in the field, specifically the trend towards greater model complexity, and discuss likely future directions for research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)205-224
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number2
Early online date14 Jan 2022
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2022


  • coevolution
  • host
  • infectivity
  • mathematical modelling
  • parasite
  • pathogen
  • red queen
  • resistance
  • theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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