"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

November 26, 2016

Cardiocephaloides longicollis

Human activities are having very significant impacts on the ecosystems of this planet and it is affecting every organisms. Parasites are not exempted from that - indeed parasites with complex life-cycles which involve many different host animals are in prime position to have their usual way of life altered by human intervention. The study being featured here today is on a parasitic fluke - Cardiocephaloides longicollis - which has a life-cycle that involves a carnivorous scavenging whelks, a variety of fish, and gulls. The researchers behind this study set out to investigate how commercial fisheries is affect the transmission dynamics of this parasite.

Left: Stained specimens of C. longicollis under light microscopy from here
Right: SEM of a closely related species Cardiocephaloides physalis from here
The asexual stages of C. longicollis reside in the body of whelks which acts as a kind of clone factory for the parasite, producing a stream of swimming larvae call cercariae. These larvae then go in the water to infect a variety of different fish. While C. longicollis has previously been recorded in 19 fish species, in this study the researchers found a further 12 species which are also viable hosts for C. longicollis, making for a grand total of 31 species of fish. The final host for this parasite are gulls, which acquire the fluke when they eat parasitised fish.

When it comes to C. longicollis infections, fish that hang around near the sea floor or the coast are the most loaded, most likely because they are in close proximity to the whelks which are sources of infection. Furthermore practically all the fish above a certain size (about 14 cm in length) are infected.  Fish in those size range have on average 73 C. longicollis larvae in their brain, with one unlucky fish recorded to have 220. Ironically, while these larger fish are the motherlode when it comes to parasites as they have been accumulating parasites for longer, since they live in deeper waters they are out of the gulls' reach. So regardless of their heavy larval fluke burden, because gulls can't get to them, all those parasites are at a dead end, destined to die or end up in the stomach of another predator which is not a gull - at least not without human intervention.

Many of the 31 species of fish which C. longicollis infects are either targeted by commercial fishing operations, or end up as by-catch. Many of those by-catch fishes - some of which are loaded with parasites - are discarded at the port. This pile of of parasite-laden fish present opportunistic gulls with a rich and accessible feast. It is a similar situation at fish farms, where the researchers found over half the fish there are infected with C. longicollis. At these facilities, organic matter from left-over feedstock, fish poop, and dead fish would also attract hungry gulls. But they're not the only ones who are attending the seafood party - being opportunistic carnivores, the whelks also come along to scavenge - so you end up with a situation where two of the host for C. longicollis are hanging out at the same location.

As the gulls feed on the discarded fish, they also are also getting infected with C. longicollis. Meanwhile, the flukes which have already reached maturity in the gulls' gut from previous feeding bouts are laying eggs which get pooped out into the water, right next to the whelks which have come for the scraps. And as mentioned above, the whelks are next host in the parasite's life-cycle, and some of those attending the feast will end up serving as parasite factories for C. longicollis in the future. For these parasites, this entire arrangement is a blessing - whereas without the activities of commercial fishing many C. longicollis larvae would have been consigned to a dead end in a large, benthic-dwelling fish, never to reach their final host. Indeed, the researchers found the fluke to be more abundant in areas with intensive fishing activity and aquaculture.

Cardiocephaloides longicollis is not the only parasite benefiting from commercial fishing activities, a study published a few years ago showed that overfishing can also benefits the tongue-biter parasite. A more recent study shows that clams living at commercially harvested sites are more heavily infected with parasitic flukes. While this does not apply for all parasites, as many would actually be negatively affected by commercial harvesting as their host population dwindles, for some species like C. longicollis human activities provide them with a rich opportunity for expansion.

Born-Torrijos, A., Poulin, R., Pérez-del-Olmo, A., Culurgioni, J., Raga, J. A., & Holzer, A. S. (2016). An optimised multi-host trematode life cycle: fishery discards enhance trophic parasite transmission to scavenging birds. International Journal for Parasitology 46: 745-753.

November 6, 2016

Macrodinychus multispinosus

There are variety of mites which live with ants, but many of them are not well-studied. Most of them are either phoretic mites which hitch a ride on the ant's body, or detritivores that eat various substances which can be found in ant nests and in those cases, they are relatively harmless commensals. But some mites that live with ants are ectoparasites. The study being featured today is about a mite that lives (and feeds) on ants - Macrodinychus multispinosus. There are variety of other mites that also feed on ant haemolymph (a fluid which is the equivalent of blood in insects), but this vampire takes it to an another level.
Left: Ant pupa host being progressively eaten alive by the parasitoid mite.
Right (top): Adult female and male Macrodinychus multispinosus mites
Right (bottom): A M. multispinosus nymph at the stage when it is attached to the host (note the stumpy legs)
Photos from Figure 1, 3, and 5 of the paper. 
Newly hatched M. multispinosus nymphs are born with fairly long limbs which allows them to move about and find a host, but once they are attached to an ant pupa, their limbs are reduced to stumps. The mite essentially become a tiny biological pump. And whereas other blood-sucking mites that feed on insects are content with imbibing just some of the host's life blood, M. multispinosus does not hold back - it consumes all the developing ant pupa's internal tissue and literally sucks the life out of it.

Macrodinychus multispinosus can be considered as a parasitoid - even though its modus operandi is very different to parasitoid wasp which devour their host alive from the inside and burst out xenomorph-style once they are ready to pupate, the outcome is pretty much the same - a dead, empty host. The researchers behind the paper being featured in this post conducted their study at Quintana Roo, Mexico across a number of field sites where they inspected colonies of the longhorn crazy ant
(Paratrechina longicornis) - the mite's only known host.

They found this vampire mite to be relatively common - of the seventeen colonies they sampled, eight of them were infested with M. multispinosus. Overall, about a quarter (26.2%) of the ant pupae they examined were infected with these mites. In some nests, over three-quarters of all the pupae are parasitised. They noticed that M. multispinosus definitely seems to have a preference for the worker ant pupae and developing queens are usually spared. Even though by doing so, this vampire wouldn't end up killing off potential future colonies by parasitising the reproductive members of the colony, it is still killing off the developing workers and this can be quite harmful at a colony level if the mites are present in high numbers.

It seems that M. multispinosus has settled quite well into its niche as a ectoparasitoid of the longhorn crazy ant, and like other mites in the Macrodinychus genus, it is rather specific about where it attach to the host - in this case the ant pupa's abdomen. But here's the twist - whereas M. multispinosus is native to Quintana Roo, its host is not and is a relatively recent arrival to the region. Even though this vampire mite must have been parasitising ants long before the longhorn crazy ant came along, its original host is still unknown to science - in fact, even though it was described in 1973, it wasn't until now that its ecology and life cycle has been documented.

There's still a lot to learn about this little vampire. Would it be a good biological control for the invasive longhorn crazy ant? What kind of ant did M. multispinosus originally parasitised before it jumped on the invader? How was it able to take to the newly arrived host so quickly?

With so many different kinds of organisms being transported (purposefully or inadvertently) around the world, perhaps is would be useful to consider recruiting parasites are as a mean of controlling invasive species, especially if the parasite is native to the region where biological control is being considered - that way, it'll be fighting on its home turf.

Lachaud, J. P., Klompen, H., & Pérez-Lachaud, G. (2016). Macrodinychus mites as parasitoids of invasive ants: an overlooked parasitic association. Scientific Reports 6: 29995

P.S. If you like this post and other posts like it on the blog, then you might been interested in checking out the book "The Wasp that Brainwashed the Caterpillar" by Matt Simon. It is full of funny and informative stories about wonderfully weird and bizarre animals both parasitic and non-parasitic - you should totally check it out!