A researcher from University of Otago investigated how competition affects intestinal worms in different species of skates and how they are distributed within the gut. In the lower intestinal tract of elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, and rays) is the spiral valve - a series of folds and whorls that increases the surface area (and thus nutrient absorbent surface) of the intestinal wall. Different species have different number of whorls and this is where most intestinal worms of elasmobranchs live.
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The most common types of tapeworms found in elasmobranchs are the tetraphyllideans (last year we featured a species which lives in the Great White shark) - this name translates roughly into "four leaves", so-called because their scolices (plural for scolex - the attachment organ of tapeworms) consists of four intricate lobes that fold out almost like a flower (you can see some of them here). These elasmobranch tapeworms are very specialised, and the shape of their scolex fits perfectly into the intestinal folds of their host and no other species (see this for example).
But the parasite we are focusing upon today is actually a nematode (roundworm) - Pseudanisakis sp. (photo on the right) - it infects three species of skates and shares them with a number of other parasites. When Pseudanisakis shares the spiral valve of the little skate (Leucoraja erinacea) with two species of tetraphyllidean tapeworms, its presence causes one of the tapeworms - Pseudanthobothrium purtoni - to shift from its usual position in the spiral valve and move more towards the anterior whorls. Contrast this with what happens in the smooth skate (Malacoraja senta) where Pseudaniskis simply lives alongside two other species of parasites (both also tetraphyllidean tapeworms) without anyone pushing anyone else out of place. But when Pseudanisakis is confronted with a different type of tapeworm, as is the case in the gut of the thorny skate (Amblyraja radiate), the nematode becomes the one that is forced to compromise, and the worm that causes Pseudanisakis to submit is Grillotia sp.
Grillotia belongs to a different group of tapeworms called the trypanorhynchs. Instead of four intricate lobes that fit snugly into the folds of the intestinal wall, it has four tentacles lined with hooked barbs that upon contact with the intestinal wall of its host, shoot out and embed themselves in the host's tissue (the photo on the left shows the scolex of a larval trypanorhynch with the tentacle just slightly protruding, see also this photo of a worm with one of its tentacles more fully extended). For whatever reason, in the presence of Grillotia, Pseudanisakis is compelled to move.
There appears to be a pecking order amongst the intestinal worms of skates, with trypanorhynchan tapeworms on top, followed by nematodes, then tetraphyllidean tapeworms trailing behind. Note that this kind of competition between these species only seems to occurs between worms that live in the spiral valve of skates. Similar worms living in the spiral valves of sharks seems to just leave each other alone. At this point, it remains uncertain why that is the case.
Randhawa, H.S. (2012) Numerical and functional responses of intestinal helminths in three rajid skates: evidence for competition between parasites? Parasitology 139: 1784-1793