"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

September 16, 2012

Bolbosoma balaenae

Image from Figure 1 of the paper
Today's parasite is an acanthocephalan (also known as a thorny-headed worm) and its name should be a clue to what it infects - baleen whales. And what do most baleen whales eat? Krill - lots and LOTS of it. The authors of the study I am writing about in this post found Bolbosoma balaenae larvae infecting krill that were caught during a plankton trawl off the coast of Ría de Vigo, Spain in the NW Iberian Peninsula.

The krill serve as hosts for larval B. balanae and from there, they proceed to infect the next host of their life-cycle, which as mentioned above, are baleen whales where they develop into adult worms. Acanthocephalans as a whole generally only have two hosts in their life-cycle - a small arthropod intermediate host where the larval worm resides, and the vertebrate definitive host where the adult lives and reproduces. But many of the thorny-headed worms that infect marine mammals add another host into the life-cycle between the crustacean host and the vertebrate host - this extra host is known as a paratenic host. The paratenic host is different from the intermediate host, and here's why.

For parasites with complex, multi-host life-cycles, the intermediate host is an obligate component for successful completion of the cycle. It is where the larval parasites gather resources to undergo development into the next stage, and at the same time, the intermediate host also serves as a mean of transporting the larvae into the definitive host (usually by getting itself eaten by the said host). It is in the definitive host where the parasite reaches sexual maturity. In contrast, a paratenic host serves only as a transport, and while the parasite has to infect an intermediate host to complete its life-cycle, infecting the paratenic host is optional. Seeing how the parasite can technically go through its life without ever hopping inside the paratenic host, why do it at all?

Image from Figure 1 of the paper
In the case of other acanthocephalans that infect marine mammals (such as Corynosoma cetaceum), if they are accidentally ingested by their marine mammal hosts while still inside the tiny crustacean intermediate hosts, they will still reach adulthood. But because the chances of that happening is negligibly slim compared to the likelihood of the crustacean host being eaten by a fish, which itself is then eaten by the said marine mammal, incorporating a paratenic host greatly enhances its chances of completing its life-cycle.

However, all this is unnecessary for B. balaenae, as their next host - fin whales and minke whales - do in fact feed on those tiny crustaceans. The authors of this study found that the infection prevalence of B. balaenae in krill is very low - only one in every thousand krill was infected with B. balaenae. But considering that a fin whale gulps down about 10 kg (22 lb) worth of krill with every mouthful and eats about 1800 kg (4000 lb) of those little crustaceans each day,  they can easily pick a few hundred worms very quickly even though the infection level is relatively low in krill.

Just like another acanthocephalan we have previously featured on this blog, Acanthocephalus dirus, instead of simply shedding eggs that are released into the environment with the host's faeces, the female worm actually leaves the gut once she is filled with fertilised eggs (see this paper). So even though the whale is constantly being infected with new worms with every mouthful, there is also a constant turnover in the population in the form of mature female worms exiting the host.

Gregori, M., Aznar, F.J., Abollo, E., Roura, Á., González, Á.F. and Pascual, S. (2012) Nyctiphanes couchii as intermediate host for the acanthocephalan Bolbosoma balaenae in temperate waters of the NE Atlantic. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms 99: 37-47.

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