"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

May 15, 2015

Taenia serialis

Many parasite can cause health problems for their hosts, but aside from those that infect humans and domestic animals, it is not entirely clear just how much impact most parasites are having on the host population. Of course, the problems caused by parasites for a host goes beyond direct pathology; for social animals, parasitism can also affect how individuals interact within a group.

(A) Frodo the gelada and (B) the T. serialis larvae that spilled from her back
Photo from Fig 1 of the paper
In this post, we will be discussing a study which investigated the impact of a tapeworm on a population of gelada baboons (Theropithecus gelada) in Ethiopia. The tapeworm in question is Taenia serialis, which is related to some more well-known species of tapeworms include the beef tapeworm and the pork tapeworm. Despite being commonly used in first year biology textbook as a "typical" example of a tapeworm, Taenia is anything but typical in terms of its life cycle compared with most other tapeworms.

Like other parasites that have a complex life cycle, the larval stage dwells in an animal known as the intermediate host - this is where the parasite grows to a certain size before being eaten by a predatory animal which serves as the final host (definitive host), where it will mature into a sexually reproducing adult worm. Taenia does something different in its intermediate host - an adaptation found in the evolutionary play book of the digenean flukes and some other parasites. Instead of merely growing larger and await consumption by the final host, they asexually multiply inside the intermediate host - making many genetically identical copies of themselves and forming cysts which contain hundreds or even thousands of larval clones.

As you can imagine, having a slowly growing bag of worms lodge inside your body is not good for your health (it actually served as a plot device in an episode of House), but just how much does it impact a population of wild animals? The paper featured today is the result of a long term study stretching from January 2007 to June 2013 monitoring the health and demographic data of 16 gelada bands on the Guassa Plateau located on the western edge of the Great Rift Valley on the Ethiopian Highlands. The research group kept track of 348 individual geladas over the course of the six and a half year study, noting their health, reproductive status, and any birth or death. These monkeys are also commonly infected by a species of Taenia which uses the geladas as an intermediate host.

The final host for this parasite is most likely the Ethiopian Wolf (Canis simensis) - which shares the same habitat with the geladas. Even though this carnivore usually only hunt small mammals such as rodents, they are known to scavenge on gelada corpses - which is probably how they become infected with T. serialis. When geladas accidentally ingest tapeworm eggs which had come from the wolf's faece, the parasite proliferate in the monkey, forming cysts or bladdders which can become visible as protrusions on the skin. While the cysts are grotesque, this allows researchers to monitor infections in the monkeys without coming into direct contact them (which might affect their natural behaviour). But while the cysts are clearly recognisable on the gelada's skin, one cannot simply identify a parasite via skin cysts alone - a closer examination is necessary.

Fortuitously (for science anyway), during the course of their study they were able to obtain some parasite material for identification due to a serendipitous event. Some members of the research group noticed an adult female gelada they named Frodo had a large parasite cyst on her back. At some point, the cyst ruptured and spilled out a bunch of parasite larvae, enabling the researchers who were following Frodo at the time to collect some of the parasites for examination, and subsequently identify them as T. serialis. While this tapeworm is usually known to infect rabbits as an intermediate host, on the Ethiopian Highlands, they infect geladas.

Overall, the researchers found that one in six of the monkeys they monitored had at least one T. serialis cysts, and most of those afflicted were adults with one-third of the adult population showing signs of infection by the tapeworm at some point. Those infected monkeys are more than twice as likely to die than their uninfected comrades, and this tapeworm's impact extends beyond the individual directly infected with it. Infants born to tapeworm-infected mothers are twice as likely to die before their first birthday compared with infants that have mothers with no signs of infection, and infected female monkeys also experience a longer lag period between the birth of each offspring.

Male monkeys also lose out due to T. serialis infection - geladas are polygamous species that organise themselves into so-called one-male units (OMU), each consisting of a single male with a harem of females. The researchers observed that tapeworms infection compromises the male monkeys' ability to hang on to their harems and infected geladas are more likely to lose in a dispute with any new (uninfected) challenger(s) that appear on the scene.

The impact of parasites on most wildlife is not well-understood, and often their effects are not immediately visible without a sustained long-term ecological and demographic study. Even natural levels of infection can have profound impact on host population, as seen with the effects of T. serialis on geladas. Therefore when it comes to wildlife conservation, it important to be mindful of parasites and the hidden role they play on the stage of nature.

Reference:
Nguyen, N. et al. (2015). Fitness impacts of tapeworm parasitism on wild gelada monkeys at Guassa, Ethiopia. American Journal of Primatology 77: 579-594.

April 26, 2015

Nepinnotheres novaezelandiae

Life as a pea crab seems pretty sweet, you spend most of your time sitting snug and protected within the armoured shelter of a shellfish, while your host's filtration current bring you a constant stream of oxygen and food - everything that a pea crab needs for a good life. Well, almost everything - because there's more to life than just being protected and fed. Much like other organisms pea crabs need to reproduce - that's how evolution works, and unlike many other living things, a pea crab cannot just clone itself.
Male Nepinnotheres novaezelandiae squeezing in between
the valves of a mussel. From video here.
So when it comes to reproduction, the balance of living the pea crab life tips from "pretty sweet" to "absolutely terrible" - especially if you are a male pea crab. For them, trying to find a mate is a harrowing challenge than none of us can possibly imagine. First of all, to reach a potential mate, you have to leave your host, which means you have to pass the gates that are the valves of the host mussel, without being caught in between them. At that stage, those valves that had offer such formidable protection for the pea crabs then become death traps, with about 13% of male crabs meeting their end at this molluscan gate - their bodies litter the mussel bed.


Once outside, the male pea crab faces even more challenges. These tiny crustaceans, which are more accustom to a cosy life inside a shellfish, have to cross the treacherous, open areas of the mussel bed, filled with horrible monsters (in the form of predators like fish, octopus, and larger crustaceans) for which an exposed pea crab is just a convenient snack. Furthermore, male crabs only make up 20% of the population despite the more or less equal sex ratio of immature pea crabs. The length that they have to go to just to find a mate probably has something to do with that...

Despite the odds, almost 90% of all female crabs in the population carry fertilised eggs, so some male crabs must be having successes - but how?

The researchers who conducted this study noticed that the male pea crabs always set out under the cover of darkness when they will be less likely to be spotted by predators, and also because mussels are more relaxed at night. From the researchers' perspective, this also means that all the experiments and observation of pea crab behaviour had to be done in the dark. So in addition to sea water tanks, they set up some infra-red cameras to capture footages of all this activity - like some kind of voyeuristic shellfish reality TV show.

So what would coax a male crab out of his cosy home? To find out, the researchers constructed a flow-through observation chamber lined with PVC tubes in which they placed pea crab-infected mussels. When they placed a mussel with a female crab upstream of one with a male pea crab, the male crab would exit their host 60% of the time, roused into action by something which seem to secreted by the mussel (or the female crab in the mussel) upstream.

Male Nepinnotheres novaezelandiae tickling the mantle edge
of a mussel. From videos here.
The crab then makes its way to the mussel where the female crab resides. Once there, the pea crab patiently tickles the mussel's mantle fringe with its legs to try and convince the bivalve to let it enter. This is also the reason why the male crab only do this at night, because a mussel's response to such tickling can be very different in daylight. Try the same trick during the day and the bivalves would slam shut, crushing the amorous crab between its valves. On average, the crab will spend over three hours fiddling away at the mussel to coax the shellfish into opening up.

Additionally, in a different flow-through seawater tank where the crabs were given more freedom to roam from one host to another, the researchers recorded how long it took for the male pea crab to leave its host and reach a mussel containing a female crab. The entire journey from exiting the original host mussel to reaching their final destination took seven hours on average, though this varies from a quick hour-and-a-half jolt, to an eighteen-and-a-half hour-long trek for one particularly unfortunate individual.

So when love (or at least lust) is in the water, the pea crab will give up the easy life, and risk life and limbs for an evening rendezvous.

Reference:
Trottier, O., & Jeffs, A. G. (2015). Mate locating and access behaviour of the parasitic pea crab, Nepinnotheres novaezelandiae, an important parasite of the mussel Perna canaliculus. Parasite, 22: 13.

April 10, 2015

Edhazardia aedis

When two different parasites find themselves in a small host animal like a mosquito, there is only so much of the host to go around. So there is a pretty good chance that those co-occurring parasites are going to fight it out, and there's no guarantee that there will be a winner out of this conflict.
Photo of E. aedis spores from here

Edhazardia aedis is a microsporidian parasite that specialises on infecting Aedes aegypti - also known as the mosquito that can act as the main vector for a variety of viruses include those that causes degnue fever, yellow fever, and Chikungunya. Edhazardia aedis can spread through the mosquito population via two methods; (1) the parasite can proliferation throughout the mosquito's body until it ultimately overwhelms the host, which dies and dissolves into a cloud of infective spores, or (2) if an infected female mosquito survives the ordeal to adulthood and still manage to produce offspring, her mosquito babies will inherit E. aedis from her (gee, thanks a lot mum!).

But E. aedis can sometimes run into a competing species - Vavraia culicis. It is also a microsporidian, but unlike E. aedis, it is a generalist that can infect many different species of mosquitoes. It is also a mosquito-killer which has the same general modus operandi as E. aedis, where the parasite's spores are released when the host finally succumbs. This study found that mosquito larvae which have less access to food and are infected by both parasites tend to die earlier - and when the host dies, the spores are dispersed for both E. aedis and V. culicis - so everyone wins, right? Well not quite.

While host death does release the spores which allow them to infect more mosquito larvae, the parasites get more spores for their bucks by keeping their host alive for longer - so a host that ends up keeling over too early is not very cost effective. This applies to both E. aedis and V. culicis. Even before host death, the cost of co-infection starts manifesting itself. Regardless of whether the host dies sooner or later, both parasites produce less spores in co-infections. If E. aedis is sharing a host, it produces half as many spores as it would have if it had the host all to itself. But co-infection is even more costly for V. culicis, which manages to produce only a bit over a quarter of the spore it would have in single infections.

It is unknown how these two parasites duke it out in the mosquito, or why E. aedis has a competitive edge over V. culicis. Perhaps by being a specialist of A. aegypti, E. aedis has some sort of home ground advantage when it comes to getting the most out of its host. So it seems that some parasites just don't like sharing, and when it comes to living with others, sometimes it pays for a parasite to be a specialist.

Reference:
Duncan, A. B., Agnew, P., Noel, V., & Michalakis, Y. (2015). The consequences of co-infections for parasite transmission in the mosquito Aedes aegypti. Journal of Animal Ecology 84: 498-508.

March 26, 2015

Emblemasoma erro

During summer the air is filled with the rattling ruckus of cicada songs. Male cicadas produce this summer choir using a pair of noise-making organs located in their abdomen, with the aim of getting attention from any prospective mates. But in some cases, they can also end up with some unwanted attention.

Top: Male Tibicen dorsatus cicada
Bottom: Female Embelmasoma erro fly
Photos from Figure 1 & 2 of this paper
The species we are featuring today is an "acoustically hunting" parasitoid fly - it eavesdrops on the male cicada's flirtatious serenading and uses it to home in on its target. This fly is commonly found on the Great Plains of North America and is a scourge to male cicadas, especially male Tibicen dorsatus.

Most of what is known about such acoustically hunting parasitoids are based on flies from the Tachinidae family - one of which targets crickets (I talked about how crickets on Hawaii evolved to become silent due to the presence of one such parasitoid fly here). But this fly belongs to a different family (Sarcophagidae). Only one species of Emblemasoma is well-studied - E. auditrix- and even though Emblemasoma is widely use in the study of insect hearing, not much is known about how they actually live out in the wild. Until now, the only information available on E. erro are based on two scientific papers - one published in 1981 and the other published in 2009. The paper we are featuring today provides some much-needed update on key aspects of this parasitoid's ecology and life history.

This paper reports on a series of field surveys and laboratory experiments that documented the parasitoid's occurrence, abundance, behaviour, and developmental cycle.

The field surveys were conducted at study sites located across Kansas and Colorado. The surveys found that a bit over a quarter of male cicadas were infected with E. erro larvae, and because of how the flies track down their host, almost all the infected cicadas were male - except for one very unlucky female cicada, which most probably got infected because she was responding to the call of a male, ran into a larvae-ladened E. erro that had the same idea, the latter decided that any cicada will do. Talk about a case of fatal attraction!

And it is indeed the sound of the male cicada's serenade that draws in those flies - a loudspeaker playing the recordings of cicada calls is sufficient to attract the attention of E. erro, but a female fly need more than that to commit to dropping off her precious offspring. In outdoor cage experiments where flies and cicadas were housed together and allowed to mingle freely, the researcher observed that even if an E. erro finds herself perched next to a cicada, she will only attack when the host makes any sudden movements. So E. erro uses two separate signals to track down its prey; an acoustic signal at long range in the form of the cicada's call to guide them in, and a visual signal at close range in the form of cicada movement to confirm the host's identity

Emblemasoma erro larva emerging from a cicada
From Figure 6 of this paper
Once she has confirmed her target, the female fly makes an attack run, and very quickly drops off between 1-6 maggots (usually 3) on the base of the cicada's wings. As soon as the maggots land, they immediately start burrowing between the segments and into the cicada's body. The maggots then start devouring its host alive from the inside. Depending on the temperature and clutch size, they take about 88 hours to reach a large enough size to start pupating. At the end of this period, the maggots use teeth-like "oral hooks" to chew their way to freedom, fall onto the soil below to become pupae, and leaving the cicada an empty husk.

So while the aim of the male cicada's singing is to attract the attention of female cicadas, some of them may instead end up getting attention from females of a very different species, and become reluctant incubators for the broods of some keen-eared, cicada-hunting flies.

Reference:
Stucky, B. J. (2015). Infection behavior, life history, and host parasitism rates of Emblemasoma erro (Diptera: Sarcophagidae), an acoustically hunting parasitoid of the cicada Tibicen dorsatus (Hemiptera: Cicadidae). Zoological Studies, 54: 30.

March 11, 2015

Crassicauda magna

During this blog's first year back in 2010, we featured a parasitic nematode (roundworm) that lives in the placenta of sperm whales of all places. Today, we're featuring a study on another nematode which lives in the sperm whale's cousin - the much smaller and more enigmatic pygmy sperm whale Kogia breviceps.
Photo of C. magna in whale tissue from Fig. 1 of the paper

Crassicauda magna is a parasites that really gets under the skin of the pygmy sperm whale. While most worms in the Crassicauda genus live in the urogential and renal system of whales, C. magna just had to be different from the rest of the pack. Instead of living in the whale's plumbing system, it had opt for a life being sandwiched between layers of blubber and muscle, living snugly under the whale's subcutaneous tissue.

While it can be a tight fit in there, C. magna can grow quite large -the largest known fragment is 3.7 m (about 12 feet) long, but due to where they are found in the body and the relatively cryptic nature of its host, no fully intact C. magna has ever been retrieved. The original species description for C. magna was published in 1939, and was based upon fragmentary remains from the front half of the worm, as the rest of the parasite not recovered.

Even though this parasite appears to have a global distribution (like its host), very little is actually known about it. Only a few anatomical details have been recorded, pieced together from worm fragments which had been collected over the years, and until the publication of the present study, there were no genetic data for C. magna. This is not too surprising considering that much of what is known about the pygmy sperm whale itself (let alone C. magna) had about from examining stranded individuals - which is not exactly a routine occurrence.

The C. magna specimens which were the subject of this new study were retrieved from a dead pygmy sperm whale which was beached at Moreton Bay, Queensland. Most importantly, from a taxonomist's perspective, the research team involved was able to retrieve parts of the tail from male worms. The reason why this was kind of a big deal is that one of the key features used to identify different species of nematodes are the needle-like structures on the male genitalia call copulatory spicules. The male worms use these spicules to pry apart the female worm's vulva for sperm transfer, and it just so happened that each species have distinctively shaped spicules, which can be used to tell them apart.

The researchers were able to compare the worms collected for this study with other specimens of Crassicauda stored at the South Australian Museum, the Natural History Museum in London, and the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris. They noted that the spicules on C. magna are remarkable similar to those found on another species that was described in 1966 call Crassicauda duguyi - which was also collected from the neck muscle of a pygmy sperm whale (in this case, it was stranded on the west coast of France). Their conclusion was the C. duguyi is most likely just C. magna instead of being a different species, but the taxonomist who described it was not able make the match because the original species description of C. magna did not have information on the male genitalia.

Unlike previous studies, the researchers responsible for the current one also managed to extract some genetic material from the worms they collected. They sequence a section of the worm's ribosomal DNA which was used to reassess the classification of C. magna in relation to other parasitic nematodes. With such a genetic marker at hand, it can be used in the future to find out more about this enigmatic parasite and its equally cryptic host.

Reference:
Jabbar, A., Beveridge, I., & Bryant, M. S. (2015). Morphological and molecular observations on the status of Crassicauda magna, a parasite of the subcutaneous tissues of the pygmy sperm whale, with a re-evaluation of the systematic relationships of the genus Crassicauda. Parasitology Research 114: 835-841

February 24, 2015

Gelis agilis

It's a bug-eat-bug world out there and the same applies to parasitic wasps - even parasites can themselves become parasitised - which is why some parasitoids recruit their dying host as defence. The parasitoids that go after other parasitoids are call "hyperparasitoids" and the species we are featuring today is Gelis agilis, a tiny wingless wasp that lays its eggs in the cocoons of parasitic wasps such as Cotesia glomerata.
Photo of Gelis agilis by Christophe Quintin

This hyperparasitoid wasp has more to contend with than just overcoming their host's reluctant bodyguard. It is after all a small insect which equates to a handy mouthful for many potential predators. The adult G. agilis is a tiny (3-5 mm) and seemingly defenceless - it doesn't even have wings to fly away from any danger. But G. agilis makes up for that with a clever masquerade

If there is a group of tiny insect which are generally regarded as pretty unpalatable, it is ants (except for animals that specialise on eating ants), so many other creatures have evolved to mimic them in one way or the other. When it comes to playing the part of an ant, G. agilis is a method actor - not only does it look and act like an ant, it even smells the part. When agitated, it emits a volatile chemical call sulcatone, which is the same chemical used by ants as alarm pheromone to rally colony members to their defence.

This "full spectrum mimicry" pays off. Spiders that normally pounce straight onto similarly-sized insects such as fruit flies or parasitic wasps like C. glomerata would hesitate or back right off when confronted with Gelis. A species related to G. agilis - G. aerator - looks and acts like an ant but lacks the distinctive "antsy" smell. When G. aerator was put through experimental trials up against hungry wolf spiders, most spiders back off due to its ant-like appearance. But the lack of matching ant BO was enough for a few more daring (or desperate) spiders to get the jump on G. aerator.

By playing the part to its fullest capacity - behaviour, appearance, and scent - G. agilis is better able to evade its predators to survive another day, and go on to make life a living hell for other body-snatchers

Reference:
Malcicka, M., Bezemer, T. M., Visser, B., Bloemberg, M., Snart, C. J., Hardy, I. C., & Harvey, J. A. (2015). Multi-trait mimicry of ants by a parasitoid wasp. Scientific Reports 5: 8043

February 12, 2015

Trichomonas gypaetinii

What does the cause of pigeon canker, today's parasite, and the most common curable sexually transmitted infection in the world have in common? All of them are parasites from the genus Trichomonas. The species that causes pigeon canker is T. gallinae, a protozoan that lives in the upper gastrointestinal tract of pigeons, and it is currently posing a significant threat California's only native pigeon. While T. gallinae does not always cause disease, when the host is stressed, the parasite multiplies, causing lesions to develop in the throat and mouth of their host. The host eventually dies from starvation as the lesions makes it difficult for them to swallow anything. It is possible that a parasite like T. gallinae might have even brought down the occasional Tyrannosaurus rex over 65 million years ago - though the culprit is most likely to have been a different (but similar) species of parasite given how long ago that it all happened.
Photo composed from Fig. 5 & 6 of the paper

With T. rex being one of the most badass dinosaur of all time, it is appropriate that the species of Trichomonas that we are featuring today - T. gypaetinii - is found in some pretty badass living dinosaurs as well. This parasite was first isolated from a bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) - which I am sure most would agree  is a very handsome and intimidating bird. When T. gypaetini was initially isolated, it was not fully described as a species, as there was insufficient material  to do so. However, this study reports on newer samples obtained from a wide epidemiological study of avian trichomonosis in Spain. The research team managed to obtain isolates of T. gypaetini from another two species of vultures - the Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) and the Black Vulture (Aegypius monachus) - and now we have a formal description.

So what differentiates T. gypaetinii from canker-causing T. gallinae? There was nothing about their appearance which separates the two species, but when the research team did some genetic analysis on the parasite, they found that all the Trichomonas samples from vultures were perching on their own branch, far away from T. gallinae. When they search for previously published sequences of Trichomonas from vultures, they hit upon the previously undescribed isolate from the bearded vulture mentioned earlier.

So where does T. gypaetinii sit on the Trichomonas family tree? Genetically, T. gypaetinii is actually more similar to T. vaginalis - a sexually transmitted parasite that infects over 160 million people worldwide each year - most of the time without them being aware of it as most cases show no symptoms. Much like those cases of T. vaginalis infection, T. gypaetinii does not appear to cause any problems to their bird host either.

Furthermore, it seems that T. gypaetini is only found in carrion-feeding birds. Other birds of prey can get infected by T. galinae - the canker-causing species - through eating other birds, especially pigeons. But the vultures' comparatively specialised diet and digestion physiology (especially that of the bone-munching bearded vulture) means that  T. gypaetinii is the only Trichomonas that can successfully make vultures their hosts.

Reference:
Martínez-Díaz, R. A., Ponce-Gordo, F., Rodríguez-Arce, I., del Martínez-Herrero, M. C., González, F. G., Molina-López, R. Á., & Gómez-Muñoz, M. T. (2015). Trichomonas gypaetinii n. sp., a new trichomonad from the upper gastrointestinal tract of scavenging birds of prey. Parasitology Research 114: 101-112.

January 26, 2015

Baylisascaris schroederi

Larva of Baylisascaris procyonis, another
parasitic nematode in the same genus as
 Baylisascaris schroederi. Photo from here
To say that Giant Pandas are totally adorable is probably one of the least controversial statements you can make, I mean, just look them here and here. But if you are a fan of giant pandas, then today's parasite is public enemy number one. Baylisascaris schroederi is a species of parasitic roundworm that live as adults in the intestine of giant pandas, and in large numbers, they can form bowel obstruction and other more serious diseases.

The adult B. schroederi produce eggs which leave the host along with panda faeces. When the panda accidentally ingest the eggs, they hatch into larvae in the intestine and proceed to burrow through various bodily tissues, causing inflammation and scarring in the the intestinal wall, liver and lungs.

After a coming-of-age trip through the panda's various organs, the larvae return to the small intestine to grow up into an adult and get on with the business of being a grown-up parasite - laying lots of eggs. The eggs are really hardy and can stay viable in wet soil for many years, waiting for an unlucky panda to swallow them.

Because B. schroederi can stay viable, a panda can get repeated infected by parasite larvae, inflicting internal damage for years. Baylisacaris schroederi is actually one of the leading cause of death in giant pandas, and depending on the region, half or even all of the pandas in a given population might be infected.

To find out more about the ecology of these parasites, a team of scientists from China used a range of mitochondrial DNA markers to work out the population structure of B. schroederi. They collected adult B. schroederi found in giant pandas from ten geographical regions at three different mountain range in southern central China - Qinling, Minshan, and Qionglai.

They found that despite the geographic isolation of those mountain ranges, the gene pool of this parasite is fairly homogenise, indicating that somehow despite their isolation, cross-breeding is occurring between the parasite populations. Perhaps some pandas are visiting neighbouring mountain range and end up picking up worms and dropping off B. schroederi eggs while they were there. Or it might not be the pandas themselves that are moving around - seeing as the eggs can survive for years in wet soil, they may get transported through other means.

While the scientists found that the parasite population in Minshan has the highest level of genetic diversity, as a whole, B. schroederi has relatively low genetic diversity compared with other organism. But that is common feature with other roundworms in its family - the Ascarididae (of which the most well known species is Ascaris suum - the large pig roundworm) - regardless of their population size or geographical distribution.

Currently there are no vaccines available for B. schroederi and the main way through which this parasite is being controlled is with anthelminthic drugs. Despite their relative low genetic diversity, this has not stopped some populations from evolving drug resistance. That is why it is important for us to understand this parasite's population genetics - because if there is cross-breeding occurring, then the gene(s) for drug resistance can spread very quickly across the different population and pose a threat to the endangered giant panda.

Reference:
Xie, Y. et al. (2014). Absence of genetic structure in Baylisascaris schroederi populations, a giant panda parasite, determined by mitochondrial sequencing. Parasites & Vectors 7: 1591.

January 11, 2015

Pennella balaenopterae

Photo of Pennella balaenopterae embedded on
the side of the porpoise's peduncle (from Fig 2 of the paper)
Most people usually think of copepods as tiny crustaceans which live as zooplankton near the, and for most part that is true. But it might be a surprise to some of you that over a third of all known copepods are actually parasitic and they live on/in all kinds of aquatic animals. One particularly successful family of such copepods is the Pennelidae - not that you would necessarily recognise them as crustacean if you are to ever see one. While most species in this family live on fish, the parasite that we are featuring today has evolved to be a bit different. Instead of infecting fish, it has managed to colonised aquatic mammals - specifically cetaceans (whales).

Whales are among the largest known animals to have ever lived, and P. balaenopterae also happens to be the largest known copepod (most free-living copepod are tiny zooplankton measuring a few millimetres in length). As its name indicates, this parasite was initially found on baleen whales, such as fin whales, but it has been reported from different species of toothed whales as well. Despite being known to science since the 19th century, there is very little information about the biology of this peculiar parasite.

The cephalothorax or the "head" of Pennella balaenopterae
which is deeply buried in the host's blubber
The paper we are featuring today reports this parasite infecting harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena relicta) in the Aegean Sea. These parasites each measured over 10 centimetres long and most of it is buried deep in the blubber. In this study, Pennella balaenopterae were mostly found on the porpoises' back and abdominal area, probably because those areas are rich in easily accessible blood vessels that the parasite can tap into.

Even though technically it is an ectoparasite (external parasite) as it can be found dangling on the host's external surface, a significant portion of its body is actually deeply buried in the porpoises' tissue (not unlike the shark-infecting barnacle Anelasma squalicola which was featured last year). Hence some parasitologists call them "mesoparasites"; they are not strictly internal parasites (endoparasites) such as many parasitic worms, but they do interact with the host's internal tissues in some major waya.

Species like P. balaenopterae shows that over evolutionary time, some parasites can make rather radical shifts in their preferred host if given the opportunity to do so. Last year I wrote about an elephant blood fluke which has colonised rhinos because both of its mammalian host share the same habitat. Indeed, both whales and fish that are infected other pennelid copepods are both marine animals, so there have been many opportunity for such a host jump to occur.

However, it is one thing to jump from one large, terrestrial mammal into another, it is quite another to branch off and infect an entirely different class of animal which has a very different anatomy and physiology to the ancestral host. More studies will be needed to find out what makes P. balaenopterae different from its related species, as well as when and how it made the leap from living on scale-covered bony fishes, to burying themselves in the tissue of air-breathing blubbery whales.

Reference:
Danyer, E., Tonay, A. M., Aytemiz, I., Dede, A., Yildirim, F., & Gurel, A. (2014) First report of infestation by a parasitic copepod (Pennella balaenopterae) in a harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) from the Aegean Sea: a case report. Veterinarni Medicina, 59: 403-407.

December 30, 2014

Facts Of Life On Planet Parasite

We've come to the end of yet another year and all that it entails in the field of parasitology. As with last year, we have continued to the feature guest posts by student from the University of New England ZOOL329/529 class of 2014, who wrote about fungus that kills water bears, midges that suck blood from mosquitoes, and wasps that zombifies cockroaches and many more. In addition to student guest posts, there were some conference coverage (Part 1, Part 2) mixed in as well.

As for some of the parasites that were featured this year, we looked under the sea - and found that it was filled with shark-suckers, face-huggers, brood-blockers, and egg-mimics. While they sound like the monsters of science fiction horror, but they are non-fiction of the real world, and they are not monsters, but simply living things trying to get on with their life - admittedly in ways that somewhat terrifies us.

This year, we learned about parasite that can take a reproductive toll on their host, such as a lovecraftian parasitic copepods that infect flamboyant sea slugs, a peculiar barnacle which sticks itself in the flesh of a shark and can castrate its host, a tiny crab that brood-blocks its limpet host, and a copepod that masquerading as a lobster egg so they can feast on the brood of its host.

When they're not killing their hosts' broods one way or the other, they outright disintegrate them. We learn about the parasite that kills a species of "killer shrimp" by dissolving them into shrimp paste, but not before causing the crustacean to bring themselves out into the open to the waiting maw of its cannibalistic cousins. Other parasites like myxozoans do not kill their host outright, but when their fish hosts do die, it cause their flesh melt into mush, much to the dismay of fishermen.

But it's not just aquatic critters that are the target of parasites - they rumble in the jungle too, and are found in larger terrestrial animals like rhinos and monkeys, as well as smaller ones like crickets. In the case of the cricket, some parasites actually bring their terrestrial host into the aquatic realm by manipulating the host's behaviour. Other parasites mess with their host's sense of smell. And some parasites don't alter behaviour directly but just gets in the way - the worm that gets in the eyes of prairie chickens (and other birds), and fish are not faring any better, with a parasite that literally get all up in their face.

And there is no escape from parasitism - parasites are found everywhere, even in deep sea hydrothermal vents. And they do more than just gross us out or cause their host to suffer - they can also cause changes in their hosts that sends a ripple effect into the surrounding ecosystem too. Parasites are ubiquitous, diverse, and a major components of this planet's biological diversity. Parasitism is as much a fact of life as feeding, fighting, and f…reproducing - that is unless a parasite gets in the way of your ability to do that last thing…

We will back next year to bring you more posts on parasite research which you might not have read about elsewhere - so here's to another year of more parasitology science! Bring on 2015!

P.S. If you can't wait until next year for your parasite fix, you can check out some of my other parasite-related writing on The Conversation on the important ecosystem roles played by some parasites here and on parasites that blind their hosts here. As well as writing this blog, I have also been doing a regular radio segment call "Creepy but Curious" where I talk about parasitic (and non-parasitic organisms) like hairworms, emerald jewel wasps, killer sponges, vampire snails, colossal squids, second-hand vampires, and melting seastars. You can find links to all these and more on this page here.