"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

July 27, 2017

Myriophora alexandrae

Millipedes are known for secreting some really noxious chemicals to ward off its enemies. So much so that other animals are also known to co-opt the millipede's chemical cocktails for their own use.
For example lemurs and capuchin monkeys are known to smear millipede juice on themselves as a mosquito repellent. But there is no perfect defence and the millipede have some adversaries that are not deterred by its defensive secretion, some of which are phorid flies in the Myriophora genus - which are specialised millipede hunters.

a) Myriophora alexandrae laying an egg at the base of a millipede's antenna, (b) Myriophora communis (insert: ovipositor),
c) Millipede excreting defensive fluid while a Myriophora harwoodi feeds on it, (d) Myriophora maggot and dead host
Photos from Fig. 2 of this paper
Phoridae is a family of flies also known as "scuttle flies" - they are mostly parasitoids and there are thousands of species found all over the world. Some species are well-known for their ant-decapitation trick. Despite being rather common, very little is known about most of these parasitoids - this is possibly because of the daunting number of species, their small size, and general lack of research interest beyond a handful of species which either have potential as a mean of biological control, or are pest of cultivated insects like bees.

With so many different species of phorids out there, perhaps it is not surprising that they have evolved to target a wide range of terrestrial invertebrates - and some of them specialised in hunting millipedes, undeterred by their chemical defences. So how do Myriophora flies track down their millipede hosts? To find out, a group of researchers conducted a series of experiments at a research station in Costa Rica to determine what it is about millipedes that these flies find so attractive. They wanted to figure out whether it is the defensive juices secreted by the millipedes or the sight of the millipedes themselves. So they collected some millipedes, kept them for a few days to ensure they're parasitoid free to start with, and used them to set up an experiment in luring phorid flies.

They end up presenting the flies with the following: (1) millipede juice dabbed on pieces of paper (which they obtain by lightly zapping the millipedes), (2) dead millipede smeared in millipede juice, and (3) millipedes which have been cleared of any millipede juice by zapping them until they run out of defensive secretions.

They found that the Myriophora flies were rather attracted to paper cards dabbed with millipede juice and millipedes that were smeared with their own defensive secretions. In contrast, the flies completely ignored perfectly intact millipedes that were completely juiced out. So it seems that the scent of a millipede is far more important than the sight of one for these flies.

So not only are Myriphora not deterred by the millipede's noxious chemicals, they are actually attracted to it. But millipede juice is a complex chemical cocktail - which is the exact compound that the flies are homing in on? After further analysis, the researchers determined that the compound in millipede juice most responsible for attracted these parasitoids is a chemical called 2-methoxy-3-methyl-1,4-benzoquinone. That alone was enough to bring the flies to the yard. But when that is combined with another compound found in millipede juice called 2-methyl-1,4-benzoquinone, this cocktail was three times more attractive to Myriophora flies than that first compound by itself.

But a millipede is a well-protected target - even if you can get past its noxious secretions, it also has some formidable armour platings. But there are gaps in its armoured segments and Myriophora has a specialist weapon to exploit those gaps. This parasitoid fly has an ovipositor which is shaped somewhat like a thin stiletto - when it lands on a millipede, Myriophora stabs its ovipositor at spots like the base of the antenna, the gap between the head and the rest of the body, the vulnerable underbelly of the body segment, or between the plates covering the millipede's butt.

The parasitoid sticks its ovipositor between those gaps in the millipede's armour, and delivers a deadly payload in the form of an egg. Once the egg hatches inside the millipede, the newborn maggot has a hearty appetite and a growth rate to match. Within five days, it will finish cleaning out the millipede host from the inside, leaving behind only an empty husk and the millipede's hindgut. The maggot will then crawl from its host's empty corpse to pupate and eventually emerge as an adult fly, ready to bring up a new generation of millipede-wreckers

So for the millipedes, while those defensive cocktails are great for fending off everything else, there is no perfect defence - the very thing that protects it against some many predators is also the very thing that brings in parasitoid flies that will eat them alive.

Hash, J. M., Millar, J. G., Heraty, J. M., Harwood, J. F., & Brown, B. V. (2017). Millipede Defensive Compounds Are a Double-Edged Sword: Natural History of the Millipede-Parasitic Genus Myriophora Brown (Diptera: Phoridae). Journal of Chemical Ecology 43: 198-206.

July 10, 2017

Anoplocephala manubriata

Tapeworms are a very diverse group of parasitic worms. There are about 6000 described species and they infect a wide range of different vertebrate animals including fish, amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and birds. But even though there are so many different tapeworm species, the one thing they all have in common is that the adult worm lives in the intestine of their vertebrate host. So it would be no surprise that a large animal like an elephant would be host to tapeworms, and the species that is featured in the study that we will be covering in this blog post is Anoplocephala manubriata.

Top left: Adult Anocepgala manubriata tapeworm
Top right, bottom left: close-up of scolex and suckers
Bottom right: tapeworm egg containing oncosphere
Photo from Fig. 1 and 3 of the paper
Despite being an elephant parasite, these tapeworms are not as big as you might think. Many people think that big host means big parasites, and while some parasites in large animals can reach massive sizes, but that is not always the case. Instead of being infected by big parasites, many large animals are often host to parasites that are not much bigger than related species infecting smaller hosts.

For example, the Great White Shark is infected by a species of tiny tapeworm which measures just a few millimetres long, but what they lack in size they make up for in numbers, and a single shark can be infected by thousands of them. While A. manubriata grows to a respectable size for a tapeworm (4.6 cm–7.4 cm long and 0.7 cm to 1.8 cm wide), it is nowhere near the size of the infamous broad fish tapeworm which can reach the alarming length of over 10 metres long.

The tapeworms described in this study were retrieved from a young male elephant that died at the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home in Sri Lanka. Anoplocephala manubriata has very muscular suckers on its scolex which allows it to keep a firm grip on the host intestinal wall. But this is not so great for the elephant - the suction from the tapeworms' suckers essentially end up leaving hickeys on the elephant's intestinal mucosa, which is not a particularly healthy place for an elephant to get love bites, especially if they have been left there by a bunch of tapeworms. Indeed, the elephant that was necropsied in this study was found to have multiple lesions and ulcers on the gut lining as a result of these parasitic love bites. This tapeworm seems to be far more common among younger elephants than adults, possibly because older elephants have more developed immune systems, and have build up some kind of resistant towards these parasites.

Tapeworms have complex life-cycles, and before the adult worm ends up in the intestine of the final host, they have to first develop as larval stages in smaller animals - usually an invertebrate, in some case a small vertebrate animal - and these small animals are usually the prey species of the final host. That is why the final host for many species of tapeworms are often predatory animals or at least animals that include smaller animals in their diet.  But what about elephants though? They are not usually known for eating bugs or other small animals, and the other tapeworms in the Anoplocephala genus are parasites that infect horses, zebras, and rhinoceros - all herbivorous mammals. So how does A. manubriata finds its way into these giant herbivorous animals?

A previous study found that A. manubriata actually uses orbatid mites as an intermediate host. Orbatid mites are minuscule arachnids that live among soil and litters - they are very tiny, and most species are less than one millimetre long. But being so tiny means that the elephant can easily swallow them inadvertently along with their usual fodder. Branches and leaves that have been in contact with soil can inadvertently pick up some of these tiny mites, and at least a few of those would be infected with  A. manubriata larvae. But there is also another way through which elephant can end up with A. manubriata. Elephants that have gastrointestinal problems also have a habit of eating dirt, possibly as a way of self-medication, as seen in other animal. However, while trying to cure themselves of one ill, they end up ingesting soil mites and inflicting another different ill upon themselves.

Like many parasites, A. manubriata is a key part of the ecosystem, and the life-cycle of this tapeworm, which involves both the elephants and soil mites, reveals the hidden ecological connection between one of the planet's largest living land animal and one of its smallest.

Perera, K. U. E., Wickramasinghe, S., Perera, B. V. P., Bandara, K. B. A., & Rajapakse, R. P. V. J. (2017). Redescription and molecular characterization of Anoplocephala manubriata, Railliet et al., 1914 (Cestoda: Anoplocephalidae) from a Sri Lankan wild elephant (Elephas maximus). Parasitology International 66: 279-286.

June 16, 2017

Eryniopsis lampyridarum

Mind-controlling fungi that manipulate ants have become quite well-know among the general public due to their ability to induce a "zombie-like" state in their host, but ants are not the only insects that can get infected by fungi, nor are they the only insects to get mind controlled by them. The study featured in this post is about a zombie beetle fungus call Eryniopsis lampyridarum which infects the goldenrod soldier beetle. Despite its name, the goldenrod soldier beetle is not as formidable as its name might indicate. The name is actually based on the first described soldier beetle species which has a colour pattern that resembles the coat of 17th-19th century British soldiers.

From Fig. 2 of the paper
The presence of E. lampyridarum in these beetles has been known for over a century, but relatively little research has been conducted on this pairing aside from some basic ecological research conducted in the 1970s and 1980s. It was not until now that someone has investigated this parasite-host interaction in close details, and provide descriptions of the fungal structure

From Fig. 4 & 5 of the paper
When the fungal infection in a beetle ripens, the infected insect will seek out a flower and clamp their mandibles around it in a vice-like grip. This is rather reminiscent of some zombie ant fungi which cause their hosts to position themselves on the underside of leaves where they can sprinkle spores into the path of uninfected ants. But the zombie beetles don't clamp themselves to leaves, nor do they bite down on just any old flowers, they only chose those from the Asteraceae - better known as daisies. After biting down on a daisy, the infected beetle succumbs to the infection. But the fungus is not done with its host quite yet.

Slowly, the dead beetle's wing covers and wings unfurl throughout the night, revealing a bloated abdomen brimming with fungal growth. By dawn the wings and their covers are full extended. So why have daisies as the final resting place for these zombie beetles? Also why unfold the wings and their covers at night just before daybreak?

For soldier beetles daisies, are like pubs or cafe - that's where they congregate to feed and possibly socialise with other beetles. So by placing itself on a flower, the zombie beetle is in prime position to meet its uninfected cousins. Unlike the zombie ant fungus which sprinkle its spores onto the ground to infect foraging worker ants, the spores of E. lampyridarum stays on the zombie beetle because that's where uninfected beetles are likely to come into contact with them.

With the fungal bodies sprouting from the abdomen, it seems that unfolding the wings would help expose the infective spores to potential host. However, there might be another reason for the wings to be unfolded. The researchers of this study suggested it actually serves the function of making the fungus-ridden corpse more attractive to uninfected beetles. Having the zombie beetle's wings open just before daybreak is also tailored to suit the daily routine of these beetles which are more likely to visit daisies in the morning. You can imagine that an unsuspecting goldenrod soldier beetle would visit a flower for a drink in the morning, meet some attractive looking beetles while it is there, only to end up with a fungal infection that will eventually take over them in body and mind

While some degree of mind-control is involved in getting the beetles to bite down on flowers, unfolding the wings seems to be a purely mechanical process. The wing unfolds long after the host has died, but the fungal growth propagate in such a way that it pushes the connective tissue at base of the beetle's wings and forces them to unfold. The fungus acts like the hand in a puppet, animating the beetle's dead body as if it is some kind of chitinous marionette.

But not all the infected beetles eventually become flower-clampers, some infected beetles simply die without ever climbing onto or clamping onto a daisy. In that case, the beetle are filled with thousands of resting spores, which unlike the ones on the zombie beetles, are not immediately infective. But those spores can last for a long time in the environment. For those beetles, when their bodies hit the ground and are broken apart by scavengers and microbes, they end up seeding the soil with a bank of viable spores.

So whereas the purpose of the infective spores on those flower-clamping zombie beetle is to spread the infection far and wide in the moment, those resting spores are an investment for the future - they are hardy and resistant, and their purpose is to wait in the soil for the next season, when they will unleash a brand new wave of zombifying plague.

Steinkraus, D. C., Hajek, A. E., & Liebherr, J. K. (2017). Zombie soldier beetles: Epizootics in the goldenrod soldier beetle, Chauliognathus pensylvanicus (Coleoptera: Cantharidae) caused by Eryniopsis lampyridarum (Entomophthoromycotina: Entomophthoraceae). Journal of Invertebrate Pathology 148: 51–59

June 4, 2017

Steinernema carpocapsae

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about Heterorhabditis bacteriophora; an insect-killing nematodes that uses bacterial symbionts to kill its host and turning its innards into a nutritious soup. But H. bacteriophora and its kin in the Heterorhabditidae family are not the only nematodes that have adopted the insect-killing life. Another family of roundworms, the Steinernematidae, have also independently formed their own insect-killing partnership with bacteria. The study featured in this post focuses on Steinernema carpocapsae - like the heterorhabditids, this parasite uses its bacterial symbionts as a weapon by unleashing them in the insects that they infiltrate. But this new study shows that there's more to those worms than just a bacteria delivery vehicle.

Steinernema carpocapsea larva in its free-living phase (left), and its infective/parasitic phase (right)
Photos from Fig 1 of the paper
Steinernema carpocapsae is an extremely capable killer, so much so that a single S. carpocapsae larva (which is only only about half a millimetre long) is enough to bring down an insect and turn it into an incubator for thousands of newly spawned worms. This parasite's bacterial partner in crime is Xenorhabdus nematophila, a bacteria which are found exclusively with S. carpocapsae and are responsible for producing the insecticidal toxins.

For the average insect, a lethal dose of X. nematophilus consists of about 3500 bacterial cells.  But, each S. carpocapsae only carries 20—200 cells of X. nematophila - well below the lethal dose. The fact that a single worm is enough to kill an insect host with so few bacterial cells means that S. carpocapsae isn't just relying on the bacteria to do all the dirty work.

When a newly spawned S. carprocapsae crawls out of an insect carcass into the outside world, they look like just another nondescript soil nematode. They do not feed during that stage, so their mouth and guts are sealed shut. But when a S. carpocapsae larva encounters a suitable host, its body starts changing - its head swells up, its mouth opens, and its gut expands (see the photos above). It's like going through puberty, except instead of getting acne on your face or have hair sprout from certain places, or your voice changes, S. caprocapsae turns from a seemingly innocuous worm into a lean, mean parasitic killer.

But aside from such physical changes, these infective larvae also start spewing out a complex cocktail of proteins. When researchers isolated and examined this mixture more closely, they found that it was made up of 472 different proteins - many of them are proteases, which are digestive enzymes that breaks down proteins and cellular structures. There are also some peptide toxins similar to those found in other parasitic nematodes, but the functions of the vast majority of those molecule are unknown. And it turns out this cocktail can be quite toxic for insects. Fruitflies that are injected with S. carpocapsea toxins die within two to six hours, and it proved equally deadly for silkworms. Waxwmoth larvae fared a little better - while the toxins left them paralysed, they were able to recover after 24 hours, though a bit battered and bruised from the experience.

As deadly that might seem, based on the outcome of the lab experiments, it would take 20 parasite larvae about 24 hours to produce enough toxin to kill a fruitfly - which is a far cry from what goes on in the wild where a single S. carpocapsae can take down insects larger than fruitflies within two to three days. This nematode cocktail also expires pretty quickly, and completely loses its killing power after 54 hours.

However, we have to keep in mind that the proteins S. carpocapsea produces are not acting alone. Despite the parasite's toxic arsenal, its symbiotic bacteria still plays a very important role in killing the insect host. Also of the hundred of proteins that that S. carpocapsea secretes, not all of them contribute to the insect-killing process through sheer toxicity, some might work in conjunction with some of the bacteria's own toxins to boost their lethality. Some might be running interferences that suppress the host's immune system, which is a distinct possibility given their similarity to the peptide toxin secreted by other parasitic nematodes.

Understanding how all these proteins work, and how they function with S. carpocapsae's bacterial symbionts would require further investigation. With its arsenal of toxins and deadly bacterial symbiont, S. carpocapsae is the stuff of nightmares for insects in the undergrowth. But it may also give us insight into how parasitic nematodes overcome or subvert their host's defences, and how animal-microbe symbioses function in their respective environments.

Lu, D., Macchietto, M., Chang, D., Barros, M. M., Baldwin, J., Mortazavi, A., & Dillman, A. R. (2017). Activated entomopathogenic nematode infective juveniles release lethal venom proteins. PLoS Pathogens, 13(4): e1006302.

May 16, 2017

Langsdorffia hypogaea

Parasitic plants are important parts of many ecosystems due to the wide range of organisms they interact with. While they can be detrimental to the host plant's growth and reproduction, they are also a food source for many animals. For most parasitic plants very little is known about their basic natural history, let alone the impact they have on the surrounding environment. In the paper featured in this post, a group of researchers conducted a study to collect some much-needed basic natural history information on a common but poorly known parasitic plant call Langsdorffia hypogaea at the Panga Ecological Station, a cerrado reserve located 30 km south of Uberlândia in southeastern Brazil.

The structures of Langsdorffia hypogaea
Top left: Male flowers, Top right: Female flowers, Bottom left: parasitic tuber, Bottom right: the entire plant
From Fig. 1. of the paper

Langsdorffia hypogaea is a widespread parasitic plant found in Central and South America. It has been recorded to parasitise at least 23 different plant species, ranging from lianas, trees, and even a species of cactus. In this study, the researchers found it parasitising five different plant species at the cerrado reserve, with Miconia albicans, also known as Canela de velho, being the most commonly used host plant. It is not easy to spot the parasite's presence - it spends most of its life hidden underground as a parasitic tuber attached to its host's roots, and the parasitised plants do not look visibly different from its non-parasitised cousins.

Unlike hemiparasitic plants such as mistletoes which have leaves and are able to photosynthesis on their own, holoparasitic plants, such L. hypogaea, are wholly dependent upon their host and do not have much in the way of external structures. The only parts of L. hypogaea that poke out of the ground are its red, mushroom-like flowers, which only appear during the dry seasons. So even though it is fairly common, unless you know what to look for, you won't even know that it is there. This is probably why very little is known about it aside from description of its anatomy and the list of plants that it parasitises. Until this and similar studies came along, the most comprehensive research on the natural history of L. hypogaea was published over a century ago.

Since even though it is a parasite, L. hypogaea is still a flowering plant - so what pollinates it?
In New Zealand, an endangered species of parasitic plant called the wood rose (Dactylanthus taylorii) is pollinated by short-tailed bats. In this study, the research team found that the mushroom-shaped flowers of L. hypogaea were visited by a variety of insects ranging from ants, to wasps, to cockroaches. Unlike the wood rose, which produces a prodigious amount of concentrated nectar, L. hypogaea skims on the sugar and secretes a relatively dilute nectar. It is enough to attract many insects, but those insects might not be the plant's main pollinators. Judging from the flower's structure, the research team proposed that the main pollinators of L. hypogaea are more likely to be larger animals like small mammals or birds.

To find out what pollinates L. hypohaea, the researchers set up infrared-based camera traps near its flowers, and the resulting footage revealed a surprising nocturnal visitor - the white-naped jay (Cyanocorax cyanopogon). Aside from insects, those birds were the only animals seen to visit the flowers of this parasitic plant. At this point, it is not known how important the white-naped jays are as pollinators comparing with all the other animals that visit the flowers of L. hypogaea. Indeed, there  is still much which are unknown about this parasitic plant, such as how its seeds are distributed, how it infects the hosts, what effects it might have on their host, and the kind of interactions it might have with the rest of the organisms in the ecosystem.

Organisms which are not well-studied, especially parasites, are not necessarily rare or exotic - they can be fairly common, but because they are hidden out of sight and they are also not on our mind. But to overlook parasitic plants such as L. hypogaeae is to ignore some of nature's most intimate connections and the impact they have on the nature world.

Santos, J. C., Nascimento, A. R. T., Marzinek, J., Leiner, N., & Oliveira, P. E. (2017). Distribution, host plants and floral biology of the root holoparasite Langsdorffia hypogaea in the Brazilian savanna. Flora-Morphology, Distribution, Functional Ecology of Plants 226: 65-71.

April 28, 2017

Arthrorhynchus nycteribiae

Bat flies are ectoparasites that cling to bats and suck their blood. As their name indicates, they are actually flies, but their bodies have been so heavily modified for their parasitic life style that they are barely recognisable as such. Many of them look like spiders with their long crawling legs which allow them to climb all over a bat's furry coat, and some species have even lost their wings. They can be very picky about what species of bat they parasitise, and most bat flies are specialists that are only found on one or two bat species. While they are a pest to bats, these bat flies also have their own ectoparasites to deal with, in the form of a group of fungi, and this post is on a study which examined some of them.
Bat fly Penicillidia conspicua with Arthrorhynchus nycteribiae attached
from Fig. 3. of the paper

These fungi belong to a group call Laboulbeniales, and are more commonly known as the "labouls". The live on the cuticle of their hosts and are not as invasive as other insect-infecting fungi. Labouls are found on a variety of different terrestrial arthropods including mites, millipedes and insects, but most species of labouls are found on beetles - which is to be expected somewhat since most species of terrestrial arthropods are beetles.

Labouls that infect bat flies have been found all over the world, but they in the environment where they do occur, they are relatively rare. In one study, scientists screened over 2500 bat flies and found only 56 laboul-infected flies. In Europe, there are four species of labouls that live on bat flies, all of them belong to the genus Arthrorhynchus. The fungi described in this study came from bat flies which lived on bats in the mountainous region of Hungary and parts of Romania. The samples were collected as a part of a long term bat surveys which took place between 1998 to 2015.

During the course of the survey, researchers caught bats with mist nets which were placed close to roosting sites. The bats that they caught were inspected for bat flies, and then released right after the researchers finished picking off their bat flies. They end up screening 1594 bats and collected a total of 1494 bat flies. Most of the bat flies the researchers collected were free from labouls, and of the eleven bat fly species they came across, only three were hosting labouls from two species - Arthrorhynchus eucampsipodae and Arthrorhynchus nycteribiae. The most commonly infected bat fly was the spider-look-alike bat fly Penicillidia conspicua - about a quarter of all the P. conspicua they found were infected with A. nycteribiae, and they seem to be the preferred host for that fungus.

Regardless of host fly species, the laboul fungi have an overwhelming preference for infecting female flies. This might be due to female flies simply being better hosts for the fungi - they live for longer than male flies (which gives them more opportunity to pick up laboul infections), they grow bigger, and have higher fat reserves (especially during pregnancy - yes, bat flies get pregnant), all of which makes them better hosts for the labouls than male bat flies.

There is still much that we do not known about these ectoparasites of ectoparasites - do all the bat fly labouls have a single common ancestor that initially jumped onto bat flies from some other insect host, then diversified into different species? Or did the different laboul species independently colonised bat flies on their own? Given mixed species roosts are pretty common among bats, how does this affect the transmission and evolution of these fungi on the bat flies? Additional do the labouls affect the interactions between the bat flies and their hosts?

Parasites can themselves become parasitised. Even on the backs of flies that live on the backs of bats, there is an undiscovered world of biological diversity - and we have barely scratched its surface.

Haelewaters, D. et al. (2017). Parasites of parasites of bats: Laboulbeniales (Fungi: Ascomycota) on bat flies (Diptera: Nycteribiidae) in central Europe. Parasites & Vectors 10(1): 96.

April 15, 2017

Amphiorchis sp.

Sea turtles have a lot of different parasites infecting them - in a previous post I wrote about a recently published study on a parasitic copepod that eats sea turtle skin. But as well as external parasites, turtles are also infected by a range of internal parasites, many of which are digenean flukes, but the ones that cause the most harm are the blood flukes. While most parasitic flukes that infect turtles live in the intestine and cause relatively little harm unless they occur in large numbers, blood flukes, as their name indicates, live in the circulatory system.

Top: shell of the worm snail Thylaeodus rugulosus,
Bottom: cercaria of Amphiorchis sp.
Photo from Fig. 1. of the paper
Infection by these blood flukes can cause a range of disease symptoms, but by far the main source of grief to their reptilian host comes from the eggs they lay in the hundreds and thousands. These microscopic eggs get circulated in the turtle's blood vessels and many of them become lodged in various parts of the turtle's body where they can cause damage to the surrounding tissue as they triggered the body's immune response. Infected turtles often have internal lesions throughout their tissue and various organs.

But how these flukes get into the turtles in the first place has long been a mystery. Like other digenean trematode flukes, blood flukes require some kind of invertebrate host - usually a snail - in which they undergo asexual/clonal reproduction to produce free-swimming larval stages call cercariae (which is the stage that infects the turtle). But there are many different species of snails in the sea, which species is/are the one(s) pumping out those turtle parasites? It is like looking for a needle in a haystack in a bigger haystack which is the size of an iceberg.

Recently, a group of very sick loggerhead turtles presented an opportunity to find out more about the life-cycle of these blood flukes. At the Sea Turtle Rescue Centre (ARCA del Mar) (which was where the study described in the previous post took place). Some juvenile turtles were exhibiting symptoms that matched those caused by blood fluke infections and it seems that they were infected by a species of fluke from the Amphiorchis genus. So how were they getting infected? The water supply at the facility is semi-closed and pre-treated to remove any contaminants - so the turtles must be getting infected by cercariae which were coming from inside the facility.

The silver lining to all this was that it was a great opportunity to work out what Amphiorchis is using as a first host to produce clonal larvae. As mentioned above, for most species of flukes, this is usually a snail, and there is only one species of snail living in the facility - worm snails that were encrusting on pipes that delivered water to the facility. Dissection of some specimens confirmed that those snails were filled with the asexual stages of Amphiorchis and thus the source of infection.

The worm snail is a peculiar family of snails call Vermetidae. Unlike other snails, this family of tube-shaped molluscs have evolved to live like tube worms or barnacles by cementing themselves to a hard surface, and casting out a sticky mucus net to haul in microalga, zooplankton, or anything else that gets caught in its snot web (see this video here). This might explain why some sea turtles end up getting such a heavy infections out in the wild. Worm snails are abundant on reefs, or form part of reefs themselves, and sea turtles often hang out around such habitats.

Furthermore, the turtle's shell also happens to be a good surfaces for these snail to stick to - while few encrusting snails in themselves usually wouldn't cause much problem to a sea turtle, if they are infected with Amphiorchis or other blood flukes, these snails get converted into little parasite factories that pumps out a stream of turtle-infecting larvae - and what better host for those tiny, short-lived cercariae to infect than the turtle that the host snail is already encrusted on?

Cribb, T. H., Crespo-Picazo, J. L., Cutmore, S. C., Stacy, B. A., Chapman, P. A., & García-Párraga, D. (2016). Elucidation of the first definitively identified life cycle for a marine turtle blood fluke (Trematoda: Spirorchiidae) enables informed control. International Journal for Parasitology 47: 61-67.

March 25, 2017

Balaenophilus manatorum (revisited)

At some stage of their lives, parasites need to move from one host to another - some move around a lot throughout their lives, staying just briefly on a given host before moving onto another. While others only do it once during their larval stage - once they reach their host, they are there for life. Either way, they still need to make a perilous journey to their host.

Top right: newly hatched nauplii, Top left: Copedpodite V stage, Bottom: Adult female with eggs
Image composited from photos from Fig.1, 5, and 6. of the paper

This post is about study on Balaenophilus manatorum - a tiny parasitic copepod that lives on sea turtles. How does a tiny crustacean like that manage to find their way onto a turtle in the wide expanse of the sea? Do they jump on board when the turtle come into contact with each other, or can the larval stage swim on their own? Obviously they have managed to find a way because this copepod is very common among the juvenile loggerheads in the western Mediterranean, with over 80 percent of loggerhead turtles infected with B. manatorum. Given how small they are (the adult copepod is only about a millimetre long), it seems as if they would be barely a nuisance to their host. But when they occur in large numbers, they can be an serious menace.  And they seem to have a very particular taste. It was thought that B. manatorum feed mostly (if not exclusively) on sea turtle skin.

To find out more about how B. manatorum infect their hosts and what they feed on, a team of scientists did a series of studies on some B. manatorum which were removed from a batch of sea turtle hatchlings. These hatchlings were being reared at the Sea Turtle Rescue Centre (ARCA del Mar) - a rescue and rehabilitation for sea turtles in Spain. They came from a brood of eggs that was removed from a beach frequent by tourist to ensure their safety, but during their stay at the centre, many of them develop symptoms of infestation by B. manatorum, each of them infected with about 300 B. manatorum and one unlucky turtle was hosting over 1400 copepods. While removing the copepods from the turtles, the research team collected some of the egg-bearing female copepods that were on the turtles, and reared them until their eggs hatched into larvae for the further study.

In the feeding trials, the copepods were offered a menu selection consisting of: flakes from the baleen plates of a fin whale, fish skin (from a blue whiting), green alga, loggerhead turtle skin flakes (from some hatchlings that had succumbed to B. manatorum infestation). All those items were dyed with a stain to track if they get ingested. They confirmed that these copepod only ate turtle skin flakes and didn't touch the other items on the menu. Other species of Balaenophilus have been recorded from the baleen plates of whales, but B. manatorum feed exclusively on turtle skin. From the moment it is born, B. manatorum is equipped with mouthparts which are well-suited for scrapping flakes from hard flat surfaces, such as the skin of a turtle. So it is no wonder heavy infestations of B. manatorum can cause severe lesions and skin erosions in turtles, especially for the more vulnerable hatchlings

But B. manatorum still need to reach the turtle in the first place. When placed in a dish of seawater, newly hatched copepods (called nauplii) seemed rather helpless, only able to crawl around. But if they manage to survive to grow into the subsequent stages called copepodite, they will develop legs that would allow them to swim for a bit - just barely, and once they grow past a stage call Copepodite IV, they can swim well enough to reach another turtle on their own. It seems that this parasite relies mostly on the social behaviour of the turtle for transmission. Newly hatched B. manatorum nauplii cannot swim and would have to wait for the turtles to touch each other (for example during mating) to climb onboard another host (rather like how human lice are transmitted), whereas the copepodites and adults can just swim across if another turtle comes close enough

Therefore, these parasitic copepods may present as a kind of social cost to these turtles, since not only is a social communicable parasite, it can also be a sexually transmitted infection. For B. manatorum, their entire world really is found on the back of a turtle.

Domènech, F., Tomás, J., Crespo-Picazo, J. L., García-Párraga, D., Raga, J. A., & Aznar, F. J. (2017). To Swim or Not to Swim: Potential Transmission of Balaenophilus manatorum (Copepoda: Harpacticoida) in Marine Turtles. PloS One 12(1), e0170789.

March 7, 2017

Lagaropsylla signata

One of the precondition for leading a successful life as a parasite is being able to reach your host in the first place, and various parasites have larval or adult stages that can hop, swim, or crawl towards their hosts. But there are also some parasites that need the help of other animals to get to their destination, such as the flea described in the study being featured today. This story takes place in a cave at the Gunung Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the west coast of Borneo. The cave is home to a colony of Naked Bulldog Bats.

Left: Lagaropsylla signata male (top) and female (bottom), Right: A L.saginata clinging to the leg of a cave earwig
Photos from Figure 1, 2, and 11 of the paper
While most ectoparasites can hide among the hairs and feathers of mammals and bird, this hairless bat offer no such shelter for any would-be parasites. However, that does not mean that they are completely free from ectoparasites and this is all thanks to cave earwigs. But those earwigs aren't the one doing the parasitising - they are simply passive enablers in all this, the real culprits are bat fleas

Lagaropsylla signata is a bat flea which was initially described over a century ago from specimens collected in Java, but this is the first time this parasite has been recorded in Malaysia. While L. saginata would like nothing better than dining on the blood of some hairless bats, those same bats are roosting on the roof of the cave, and the flea is not capable of scaling the cave walls to reach their hosts. Fortunately for L. saginata (but not the bats though), there are other denizens of the bat cave that a thirsty flea can turn to for help.

Enter the cave earwig Arixenia esau. The researchers found that the bat fleas were mostly either attached to those earwigs or just hanging around piles of bat guano on the cave floor, so those earwigs must have some significance for the fleas for them to be so clingy. Arixenia esau also feeds on bats - but in a different way to the fleas. Instead of tapping into the bat's blood, the earwigs are content with munching on dead skin and slurping up oils that are secreted by those hairless bats. And they are much better at navigate the cave's environment than the tiny fleas. So while these earwigs make their way to another helping of bat skin flakes and oil, L. saginata takes the opportunity to hop on board use them as a shuttle service to an all-you-can-drink banquet.

Lagaropsylla saginata is the not only ectoparasite that hitches a ride on another animal to reach their host. Last year I wrote about bird lice that hitch rides on louse flies (which themselves are also ectoparasite), and the year before that I wrote about the kangaroo leech which feeds on frog blood, but gets around by riding on crabs. Also, the human botfly lays its eggs on mosquitoes and uses those blood-suckers as a courier to deliver those eggs to suitable host, where they hatch into flesh-burrowing maggots. When you are a tiny parasite which has trouble getting around in the big bad world, you can always try and enlist the help of larger, more mobile animals!

Hastriter, M. W., Miller, K. B., Svenson, G. J., Martin, G. J., & Whiting, M. (2017). New record of a phoretic flea associated with earwigs (Dermaptera, Arixeniidae) and a redescription of the bat flea Lagaropsylla signata (Siphonaptera, Ischnopsyllidae). ZooKeys 657: 67-79.

This paper has also been covered by Jason Bittel over at National Geographic - see his post about this particular study here.

February 23, 2017

Apatemon gracilis

A few months ago I wrote about a fluke that gets in the eyes of small fish and how it obscure its host's vision and alter its behaviour - but the eyes are just one step away from the brain where a parasite can potentially do more to mess with the host's behaviour, and a fish's brain is where the parasite being featured in today's post is found.

Photo & histology of fish with parasites in the head, and cysts from body cavity
Photo modified from Fig. 1. and Fig. 2. of the paper
This study is on a species of fluke which has been. found in the brains of some small Australia fish call Galaxias. The presence of such parasites in galaxias has been known for years, and researchers have come across galaxias having a enlarged head, or a head full of "white balls". It was assumed to be caused by some kind of parasite, but this was never properly investigated. In this recent study, scientists used histology and genetic markers to identify the parasite that is giving these fish their big heads.

The galaxias used in this study were a subset of specimen collected as a part of a large study looking at the population genetics of these fish. Of the 66 sites where galaxias were collected, the parasite was found to be present in fish at five of those sites, though it was not particularly common, with only one to five infected fish out of each standard sample of thirty fish per site. It turns out that the parasite which were causing some fish to have bulgy heads was a parasitic fluke - Apatemon gracilis. Having a head filled with parasite cysts would probably compromise the fish's ability to survive, and the "white cap" of parasitised fish might be a big "eat me!" sign to potential predators - such as the parasite's final host which are known to be various species of fish-eating ducks.

At this point, it is uncertain if the presence of the flukes would change the fish's behaviour in a way that is meaningful for the parasite's life-cycle. While it may seem intuitive that the parasites on the brain are in control, that is not necessarily the case. Sure, some brain-encysting fluke have been documented to mess with their host's behaviours in a way that enhance their likelihood of ending up in the final host. But in others, timing of behavioural change onset indicates that behaviour changes are a side-effect of the parasite's growth, and by the time the parasite is ready to be eaten by a predator - just when you'd think it'll be helpful to have behavioural changes kick in - the fish has gone back to acting as it was before the infection.

We won't know exactly what A. gracilis does to its fish host without further investigation, but for now, at least the cause of the enlarged fish head has been resolved. The presence of parasites in these galaxias fish are not just a mere academic curiosity - both dwarf galaxias (Galaxiella pusilla) and the little galaxias (Galaxiella toourtkoourt) are threatened species of conservation concern, but we know next to nothing about their parasites. If certain population are more heavily infected with A. gracilis, then they might also be more readily affected by any environmental disturbance. Knowing what parasites might be lurking in the background can give us some ideas to what might tip the balance.

Coleman, R. A., & Hoffmann, A. A. (2016). Digenean trematode cysts within the heads of threatened Galaxiella species (Teleostei: Galaxiidae) from south-eastern Australia. Australian Journal of Zoology 64: 285-291.

February 13, 2017

Trichodectes pinguis

Today we're featuring a guest post by Aidan McCarthy - a student from 4th year class of the Applied Freshwater and Marine Biology' degree programme at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Ireland. This class is being taught by lecturer Dr. Katie O’Dwyer and this post was written as an assignment about writing a blog post about a parasite, and has been selected to appear as a guest post for the blog. Some of you might remember Dr. O'Dwyer from previous guest post on ladybird STI and salp-riding crustaceansI'll let Aidan take it from here

The words parasite and lice regularly go hand in hand, and usually brings us dreaded flashbacks to those primary school days when our parents would rigorously comb and shampoo our hair trying to rid of us those nasty headlice! Well unfortunately for Scandinavian brown bears, lice may impose a bigger problem than just an itchy head as a team of Swedish scientists found out in their recent study.

Trichodectes pinguis specimen from Fig. 4 of the paper
Trichodectes spp. hit the limelight when these “pests” were discovered in our beloved pets, often resulting in scratching, sleeplessness and nervousness in man’s best friend. This lead to the cull of Trichodectes canis from dogs in the western world through veterinary practices.

However, Trichodectes don’t just occur on dogs, with previous studies discovering 16 species within this genus (no doubt there are hundreds more waiting to be discovered!) parasitising ungulates and carnivores worldwide. Trichodectes pinguis are chewing lice or biting lice of brown bears, although this name suggests they bite and chew their host, they actually feed on their dead skin and other skin products.The side effects caused by this feeding can be major irritants to brown bears as you’ll see later. These are permanent ectoparasites that stay their entire lifecycle on their host, and are highly specific to brown bears. They get transmitted between bears through direct physical contact during mating, fights, and mother-offspring contact.

Patches of hair loss in the neck and upper chest region of the infected bear
From Fig. 1 of the paper
In the April of 2014, a 5-year-old female brown bear was captured by scientists in south-central Sweden under the Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project and after extensive examination, patches of baldness were discovered on its neck and upper part of its chest. This was caused by, you guessed it, those foraging little critters. Similar but more extreme cases were observed in two male bears the following year who had extensive patches of “bearness” throughout their bodies. Moderate to high numbers of these tiny lice were found in the hair surrounding the affected areas.

The affected areas showed signs or hyperpigmentation, lichenification, and in some cases chronic dermatitis indicating inflammation, pruritus and severe scratching, so pretty nasty hey! We all know the feeling of having an itch that just won’t go away, now imagine that on most of your body. Interestingly, hair samples collected from nearby brown bear day beds (hidden resting places) were found to contain lice too.
Left: Capture male brown bear parasitised by lice with patches of hair loss, Right: the same bear capture on camera feeding
From Fig. 2 of the paper
Mammals often carry considerable numbers of ectoparasites without any major effects to their health, yet more intense infestations as observed on those brown bears can have detrimental effects to the host. These severe louse infestations can make bears more susceptible to secondary infections and negatively alter their behaviour with restlessness, scratching, reduced feeding times and high levels of stress being just some examples.

Finally, if those weren’t bad enough, excessive hair loss may affect thermoregulation of the animal especially during times of high energy expenditure such as reproduction and hibernation. It would be pretty chilly going to sleep on a cold winters night without your warm woolly duvet alright! So I think it’s safe to say we didn’t have it too bad with those pesky headlice when you think about what the poor Scandinavian brown bears have to deal with!

Esteruelas, N. F., Malmsten, J., Bröjer, C., Grandi, G., Lindström, A., Brown, P. Swenson, Jon E., Evans, Alina L. Arnemo, Jon M. (2016). Chewing lice Trichodectes pinguis pinguis in Scandinavian brown bears (Ursus arctos). International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife 5: 134-138.

This post was written by Aidan McCarthy

January 29, 2017

Ophiocordyceps pseudolloydii

The Cordyceps fungus has become a fixture in popular media, at least as the go-to comparison/cause for fictional human zombies. The nominal Cordyceps that most people think of is probably Ophiocordyceps unilateralis - the infamous "zombie ant fungus". But what most people don't realise is that there isn't just "the Cordyceps fungus" - that is just a single species out of many ant-infecting fungi in the Ophiocordyceps genus. That's right - there are multiple species of zombie ant fungi and not they are all different. Each of them have evolved their own ways of getting the most out of their ant hosts.

Photo of infected ants from Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 of this paper
The species featured in today's blog post is Ophiocrodyceps pseudolloydii, and it is found in central Taiwan. This fungus specifically targets a tiny ant called Dolichoderus thoracicus. In the forest of central Taiwan are so-called "ant graveyards" - areas with high density of Cordyceps-infected zombie ants. Such sights are familiar to scientists who study these ant-fungi relationships, indeed, such "ant graveyards" have been found in other parts of the world where ants and Cordyceps fungi co-occur.

A group of scientists set out to document the behaviour and position of ants which have been mummified by O. pseudolloydii. One key thing they observed was that no matter where the zombie ants were found in the forest, the head of the dead ant tends to be pointed towards the direction of openings in the forest canopy. This indicates that the fungus might be using sunlight that comes through the canopy as a cue to steer the host ants into position.

Like other ant-infected Cordyceps fungi, O. pseudolloydii places the host ant in a position which is ideal for spreading its spores, without being dried out in open air. This usually means placing the ant underneath a leaf. But the fungus needs some way of anchoring the ant to the leaf before it can mummify the host and start sprouting into a fruiting body. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis induces a "death grip" in the zombified ants, whereby the ant locks its mandible around the vein of a leaf to secure it in place.

But O. pseudolloydii does not do that - instead of using the ant's mandible, O. pseudolloydii simply sprout a dense mass of fungal tissue which binds the ant to the underside of a leaf. So why doesn't it simply do what its more famous cousin does and make the ant bite down on a leaf vein? Possibly because the ant which O. pseudolloydii infects is much smaller than the carpenter ant which O. unilateralis parasitises. Compared with the carpenter ant workers which can grow up to 25 millimetres (about an inch) in length, the workers of D. thoracicus are merely 4 millimetres long. With such a tiny host a dense mat of fungal tissue is enough to anchor the ant in place.

By doing so, this might allow the fungus to save on making the mind-altering chemical to induce the leaf-vein biting behaviour, which can possibly allow it to produce more spores instead. All Ophiocordyceps pseudolloydii needs to do is make sure the ant is intoxicated enough to crawl to the right spot, and once that is done, the fungus will take care of the rest.

Chung, T. Y., Sun, P. F., Kuo, J. I., Lee, Y. I., Lin, C. C., & Chou, J. Y. (2017). Zombie ant heads are oriented relative to solar cues. Fungal Ecology 25: 22-28.

January 11, 2017

Heterorhabditis bacteriophora

The parasite being featured today is one of a handful of parasitic nematodes that you can purchase from your local gardening supplies store. There microscopic worms, called entomopathogenic nematodes (EPN), are commonly used by both farmers and gardeners as a weapon against a range of insect pests. Most people who use such worms probably don't give much thought to how these worms kill insects - as long as they work as intended, then it is out-of-sight and out-of-mind. But it is worth mentioning how these worms actually do their killing.
Image source: Peggy Greb, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org
Technically speaking, Heterorhabditis bacteriophora itself doesn't kill the insect, the real killer is a bacterial symbiont that it carries. Bacteria from the Photorhabdus genus have co-evolved into a mutually beneficial partnership with nematodes like H. bacteriophora. When the worm infiltrates into an insect, it unleashes its deadly bacterial payload. The released Photorhabdus then proceeds to multiply rapidly, flooding the insect's system with toxins and converting its innards into a nutritious goop for the nematodes to grow in.

It takes the worms about 20 days of bathing and drinking in the bug goop to complete incubation and produce the next generation of infective worms - in the mean time, they do not want to be disturbed. However, to most larger animals, an immobile insect is simply an easy meal - if a bird or another animal happens upon the worm-filled bug, they just gobble it up - and this kills both the nematodes and its bacteria.

A few years ago, it was discovered that the worm-bacteria duo also change the colour of the insect in order to deter birds. About 24 to 36 hours after the insect has been killed, it starts to glow, and over the course of a week its colour changes from a tangerine orange to a bright pink red. But what about for hungry animals that don't judge prey with their eyes?

In this study, researchers conducted a series of experiments to see if this parasite has some other tricks to ward off those predators. For their model predator, they used carnivorous ground beetles (carabids) and offered them frozen waxworms (caterpillar of wax moth), some of which were parasite-free, others had previously been infected with H. bacteriophora for a few days

They found that the beetles consistently preferred the parasite-free waxworms, in fact the beetles are more likely to stay away from waxworms which had been festering with H. bacteriophora for longer periods. To further examine if it was indeed the smell rather than colour that were deterring the hungry beetles, the researchers mashed up some of the infected waxworms, and the beetles still preferred the mashed-up parasite-free waxworms over those with nematodes and its bacterial symbiont.

It seems that the H. bacteriophora-infested cadaver not only change colour, but also emits a repellent smell. But wait, isn't that just what happens with a rotting corpse? However, the odour associated with insects killed by a H. bacteriophora infection is distinctively different from decaying insects that had died through other causes. The researchers notice this themselves while raising colonies of H. bacteriophora. This is probably because while most dead insects are colonised by a variety of different microbes, those killed by these nematodes are colonised almost exclusively by Photorhabdus and its host worms.

It should be pointed out that there might be an alternate explanation for why those carabid beetles avoided the infected waxworm. Heterorhabditis bacteriophora can infect a variety of insects, and depending on how far along the infection has developed, the beetle can potentially become the parasite's next victim if it starts chowing down on a H. bacterophora-killed insect. So they might be avoiding the infected waxworms for self-preservation rather than responding to some kind of special repellent emitted by the parasite colony. But if that is the case, this still achieves the intended effect, which is for the colony of growing parasites to be left alone. Furthermore, another study has shown insects killed by similar nematodes are also distasteful to other animals as well, such as fish which cannot be infected by H. bacteriophora

While killing the host is a good (and drastic) way of shutting down the immune system, thus leaving the parasite free to do what it wants, it also leaves it vulnerable to other predators and microbes that might make a meal of the now defenceless host. So H. bacteriophora and its symbiont have to provide it with a new type of protection.

This study also provides a nice tip for any prospective zombie fiction writers - if you want some kind of science-y explanation for why your walking dead do not succumb to the multitude of organisms that would gladly feast on a human cadaver, H. bacteriophora just handed you an idea, straight from wonderful mother nature.

Jones, R. S., Fenton, A., & Speed, M. P. (2016). “Parasite-induced aposematism” protects entomopathogenic nematode parasites against invertebrate enemies. Behavioral Ecology 27: 645-651.