"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

August 30, 2011

Skrjabinoptera phrynosoma

Life isn't easy as a parasite with a complex life-cycle. In order to grow up and reproduce, you often need to make your way through the bodies of at least two very different host animals - a very haphazard process that depends largely on timing and luck. In the case of today's parasite - a nematode worm called Skrjabinoptera phrynosoma - it has to make its way between a lizard and an ant. The adult S. phrynosoma lives inside the stomach of the desert horned lizard Phrynosoma platyrhinos. However, when the female becomes filled with mature eggs, she migrates to the lizard's cloaca (a nice, technical way of describing a lizard's butt).

Unlike most parasitic nematodes, which often lay eggs that are cast out of their host and left exposed to the elements, S. phrynosoma is a very maternal parasite - in a slightly morbid way. The female S. phrynosoma makes the ultimate sacrifice by casting her egg-filled body out of the lizard via the host's feces. She will die outside of the host - but in addition to protecting her eggs by doing so, it is also her strategy for helping her eggs reach the next host. For some reason, ants find the shriveled, egg-filled cadavers of female S. phrynosoma to be a tasty treat, a meal fit to feed to their brood of growing ant larvae - which then become infected with the parasite's own larvae. The life-cycle is complete when the infected larvae mature into workers, emerge from the colony, and become lizard food - horned lizards are specialists on ants.

Researchers at Georgia Southern University discovered that to ensure that this sequence of events occurs, S. phrynosoma has evolved to synchronise its life-cycle with the seasonal behaviour of both its lizard and ant hosts. They found that the number of egg-filled females (all ready to evacuate) reach peak abundance during the middle of the lizard's mating season. This is also the period when there are the greatest number of ants out busily foraging and when the colonies are packed to capacity with broods of growing ant larvae. By timing its life-cycle in such a manner, S. phrynosoma ensures that when next season rolls around, when those broods of larvae are ready to emerge as a new generation of workers ants, they will be doing so pre-infected with nematodes and just in time to welcome the hungry lizards coming out of hibernation.

Hilsing, K.C., Anderson, R.A. and Nayduch, D. (2011) Seasonal dynamics of Skrjabinoptera phrynosoma (Nematoda) infection in horned lizards from the Alvord Basin: temporal components of a unique life-cycle. Journal of Parasitology 97: 559-564.

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