|Photo of Culex pipiens |
by Joaquim Alves Gaspar
Many parasites have evolved abilities to do just this. For example, some blood-sucking insects infected with certain parasites are known to bite more frequently than when uninfected, helping to spread the disease to more animals. This is seen in malaria-infected mosquitoes, tsetse flies infected with sleeping sickness, and plague-infected fleas. But is it possible that a parasite can also influence a healthy, uninfected animal’s behaviour? The paper featured today attempts to address this question. Researchers used a species of avian malaria (Plasmodium relictum - a parasite that has been previously covered on the blog by this post here) and its natural mosquito carrier (Culex pipiens) to find out if malaria-infected animals are more attractive to mosquitoes than healthy, uninfected animals. This species of malaria is spread among birds via its mosquito carriers and thus the researchers chose canaries to carry out the experiment.
|Photo of canaries by 3268zauber|
From this experiment the researchers discovered that, not only did the mosquitoes clearly prefer to feast on the malaria-infected canaries, but also this behaviour became more prominent as the malaria parasites mature within the canary and become capable of crossing into a mosquito. The researchers suggest that the malaria parasite influences the mosquito’s decision to feed on the infected animal, assisting its transfer to said mosquito – the next stage in its life-cycle. The mechanism used to achieve this has not yet been determined but the researchers suggest that the parasite may alter the odours that are emitted from the host animal, enticing the mosquitoes to choose its infected animal over other uninfected animals. If these odours can be identified and reproduced, they may prove very useful in control of malaria in the future, for example in mosquito traps.
So is this an example of crazy sci-fi mind-controlling by parasites? Ok, so mosquitoes may not exactly be renowned for their calculated decision making skills. But the results of this experiment were still able to show us how the malaria parasite can influence a healthy mosquito’s decisions, offering further insight into the awesome manipulative powers of parasites.
Cornet S, Nicot A, Rivero A, & Gandon S (2013) Malaria infection increases bird attractiveness to uninfected mosquitoes. Ecology Letters 16: 323 – 329.
This post was written by David Rex Mitchell