Today, we look at a paper showing how data from DNA sequences can help resolve the evolutionary relationship of different parasite species, and even find new species where we least expected it. Traditionally, parasites - like other organisms - are classified based on key characteristics of their anatomy. However, many parasites have simplified morphology (an extreme example is the parasitic snail which has evolved into nothing but a bag of genitalia) and often the few key characters that can be examined are heavily reduced. Therefore, any conclusions about relationships between different parasite species that are based upon anatomical characteristics can lead to misleading or, at best, incomplete conclusions.
Spauligodon atlanticus is a species of nematode that parasitises Gallotia, a genus of lizards living on the Canary Islands (see image). Spauligodon atlanticus was initially described in 1987 using traditional methods, i.e. based solely on its anatomical features. In the case of parasitic nematodes, the key characteristic for distinguishing different species is the shape of the genitalia and tail appendages of the male specimen (such features are too indistinct in the females across different species).
For this particular study, a group of biologist from Portugal and Spain went to the Canary Islands to collect S. atlanticus from Gallotia lizards, as well as sampling for other species of Spauligodon from lizards of southern Spain, Morocco, and Armenia. They compared the DNA sequences of the worms and found that nematodes that had been identified as S. atlanticus (based on their anatomy) actually consisted of two distinct species. While they looked the same, their molecular signature revealed two separate lineages; an eastern lineage that is specific to the lizard species Gallotia atlanticus, and the western lineage that is found in 4 different Gallotia species. They also differ in their evolutionary relationships with other nematodes in the Spauligodon genus. The eastern lineage is more closely related to nematodes in wall lizards (Podacris spp.) from southern Spain and Morocco while the western lineage is more related to worms in green lizards (Lacerta spp.) from Armenia.
These two genetically separate lineages of S. atlanticus are what are known as a cryptic species complex (something that we have previously covered on this blog). Recent studies in the last ten years have shown that some parasite species which had previously been thought to be a single generalist species infecting multiple hosts, are in fact composed of multiple specialised species in disguise.
Meanwhile, this study raises another question - how did these two genetically separate lineages, living in different lizards, evolve such similar anatomical characteristics? The authors of the paper raised the possibility that the anatomy of the two lineages had evolved to convergence due to similar conditions they encounter inside the gut of their respective lizard hosts, or that even sexual selection was responsible, since the key anatomical difference use to distinguish these nematode species is the shape of the male genitalia. But this is a question that will only be resolved with further analyses of related Spauligodon species. As the authors wrote in the title of their paper, there are "no simple answers".
Image from the Wikipedia.
Jorge, F., Roca, V., Perera, A., Harris, D.J. and Carretero, A. (2011) A phylogenetic assessment of the colonisation patterns in Spauligodon atlanticus Astasio-Arbiza et al., 1987 (Nematoda: Oxyurida: Pharyngodonidae), a parasite of lizards of the genus Gallotia Boulenger: no simple answer. Systematic Parasitology 80:53-66