"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

October 28, 2012

Hyperia curticephala

C. plocamia photo by
Rubén Arturo Guzmán Pittman
Generally speaking, jellyfish are not very appetising as food. They are composed mostly of water and armed with batteries of nasty stinging cells. Both of those characteristics together they make an unfulfilling and potentially painful meal. Nevertheless, they are fed upon by large pelagic fishes, and there are even some marine animals such as sea turtles that can live on a diet composed entirely of sea jellies. For those lacking the stomach for such squishy and venomous prey, there is still a way for them to obtain nutritional benefits from jellyfishes - and the parasite we are featuring today provides one such pathway.

The study we are looking at today focuses on a little parasitic crustacean that belongs to a group known as the Hyperiidea. They are amphipods that have evolved to live inside gelatinous animals of the open ocean. In the case of Hyperia curticephala, it dwells within the bell of the medusa Chrysaora plocamia - a rather large jellyfish that can grow up to a metre (a bit over 3 feet) in diameter.

H. curticephala image from here
Like other hyperiids, individuals of H. curticephala feed on the jellies that they live in. In turn, they can also provide food for those that feed on them. An avid consumer of these little crustaceans is the palm ruff (Seriolella violacea) - a fish that can grow to about 65 cm (about 2 feet) long. The palm ruff is one of a number of fish that are known to be "medusafish" as they are often found in close association with medusa jellyfishes.

When scientists examined the stomach contents of small (about 6-10 cm / 2-4 inches long) palm ruffs, they found them to be packed full of H. curticephala and nothing else. As they grew larger, the fish started having a more varied diet, but hyperiids still make up for over 97% of their prey. The amount of H. curticephala in the stomach of palm ruffs reaches a peak in February, just as the parasite also reaches very high abundances in the medusa when some individual C. plocamia can be infected with over a thousand amphipods (which in turn provides a floating banquet for any hungry palm ruff). The abundance of H. curticephala also reaches a high during November, but this was not reflected in the stomach content of the fish - so why is that? The scientists suggested that during this season, most of the medusae available are still quite small and while collectively they might be harbouring a high abundance of H. curticephala, because of their smaller bell size they are inaccessible to the palm ruff (which needs to get in or under the medusa's bell to reach the hyperiids). But by February, the medusae have grown to sufficient size that the fish are able to swim inside the jellyfish's bell to peck at the hyperiids.

Smaller fish can easily swim inside the jellyfish to feed on the parasites and are often found loitering within the host medusa (which also provides them with protection). Larger juveniles cannot enter the bell and have to settle for pecking off parasites, which happens to be in more accessible positions. In this manner, the palm ruffs act as cleaners for C. plocamia, protecting the jellyfish from the parasitic H. curticephala rather like cleaner wrasses that eat ectoparasites off coral reef fishes.

Riascos, J.M., Vergara, M., Fajardo, J., Villegas, V., Pacheco, A.S. (2012) The role of hyperiid parasites as a trophic link between jellyfish and fishes. Journal of Fish Biology 81:1686–1695

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