"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

November 24, 2013

Tracheliastes polycolpus

Photo of adult T. polycolpus from here
Tracheliastes polycolpus is a parasitic copepod that lives on freshwater fish and does so by attaching to the fins of its host, grazing on mucus and epithelial cells. While T. polycolpus can infect a handful of different freshwater fishes, it is primarily found on the beaked dace (Leuciscus burdigalensis). When they occur in large numbers, their feeding activities can severely erode the fins of their hosts, so much that in some fish the fins are gnawed down to mere nubs (see the photo below of a heavily parasitised dace, with outlines showing the missing fin tissue).

So when it gets crowded on this parasite's usual, preferred host, some T. polycolpus find a home elsewhere and start parasitising other species of fish living in the same area. Even though T. polycolpus is considered to be a host generalist and can infect multiple species of fish, not all fish are considered equally habitable for this parasite and it does have a predilection for certain species over others. So what determines which other fish end up acquiring these parasitic copepods?

A group of scientists from France conducted a study looking at T. polycolpus population on freshwater fish in two French rivers, focusing on the 10 most abundant fish species in those rivers. Of the fish that they examined, eight of them were cyprinids (the family of fish that include dace, roach, and carp) while the two remaining species were the stone loach and brown trout.
Photo of parasitised dace with missing fin tissue from this paper

Only cyrpinids were found to be infected with T. polycolpus and of those only four species (dace, nase, gudgeon, minnows) were found to be consistently infected across both study sites. It turns out that next to the beaked dace, the second most preferred host for T. polycolpus is Parachondrostoma toxostoma, also known as South-west European Nase. After the beaked dace, it was the most commonly infected fish, especially in the Viaur river where there was generally higher abundance of the parasite.

It just so happens that out of all the fishes in those rivers, the nase is most similar to the dace in terms of its general body size, feeding style and habitat, making it the ideal second choice for T. polycolpus. On the flip side, it seems that minnow is the worst host for T. polycolpus - it hosted the least parasites out of the four fish species that were found with T. polycolpus and the parasites that were found on minnows were smaller and produced less eggs than those found on the other fish species. This is probably due to the minnow being a smaller fish than the beaked dace or the nase, so it does not produce as much mucus for T. polycolpus to graze on.

So even when generalist parasites do infect other hosts, they prefer some familiarity. The more similar you are (physiologically and/or ecologically) to the parasite's preferred host, the more likely that you will be next in line to get infected should the parasite's preferred host become too heavily parasitised.

But here's an added to layer to this story which you might want to consider - the South-west European nase is actually listed as a vulnerable species - its population has declined by at least 30% in the past 10 years due to habitat destruction and hybridisation with introduced species, so if the number of nase continues to decline, what does this mean for T. polycolpus? Would this result in increased parasite pressure on other fish species as they find themselves soaking up the "excess" T. polycolpus? Or will the the beaked dace experience even more exacerbated pathology as T. polycolpus are left with less alternative hosts to infect?

Lootvoet, A., Blanchet, S., Gevrey, M., Buisson, L., Tudesque, L., & Loot, G. (2013). Patterns and processes of alternative host use in a generalist parasite: insights from a natural host–parasite interaction. Functional Ecology 27: 1403-1414


  1. Your blog is awesome!

  2. Dear Tommy,

    I'm just discovering that you highlighted our preferred parasite (Tracheliastes polycolpus): thanks a lot :)

    Simon on behalf of the "tracheliaste team"

  3. You're welcome Simon! It is an interesting host-parasite system you are working on there!