"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

March 9, 2014

Cucumispora dikerogammari

Invasive species can be very disruptive - cane toads, rabbits, water hyacinth, and zebra mussels are just a few well-known examples of species that have been introduced to areas outside of their original geographic range and have caused extensive ecological disruption in their new home. One of the hypotheses for why some introduced species become so successful when they arrive at a new region is called the "enemy release hypothesis". In their new home, introduced species run amok as they are no longer hounded by their usual foes that would otherwise keep their population in check.
Top: A heavily infected amphipod
Bottom: Spores of C. dikerogammari
Photo from here

Dikerogammarus villosus is an amphipod (a little, shrimp-like crustacean) from the Ponto-Caspian that has invaded western and central Europe, and is now also found in the United Kingdom. They might only grow up to a little over an inch long, but they are voracious little predators that eat everything smaller than themselves, including each other. Released from their usual predators and parasites, D. villosus rips through the freshwater life of its new neighbourhood. But they have not completely escaped from their past foes; one parasite has managed to come along for the ride, and it is a microsporidian called Cucumispora dikerogammari.

As far as the parasite goes, Cucumispora dikerogammari is a pretty nasty one. It invades the host's muscles, reproduces prolifically and eventually kills the host by overwhelming it with sheer numbers. There is some concern that this parasite can spill over into the native invertebrates and add insult to injury to the local stream life. But on another hand, a new study shows that this parasite might be one of the few things holding back this voracious invasive amphipod from causing even more destruction.

A group of scientists from France conducted a study to looked at how C. dikerogammari affects the activity levels and appetite of D. villosus. They observed the behaviour of both infected and uninfected amhipods in a water-filled glass tube and noticed that amphipods at a late stage of infection that are visibly "filled to the brim" with parasite spores are actually more active than healthy amphipods or those that are not visibly parasitised because they are at a much earlier stage of the infection.

Close-up of a C. dikerogammari spore from here
Furthermore, they also presented amphipods with midge larvae (also known to some as "bloodworms") to see how many they ate. Both infected and uninfected D. villosus pounced on those insect larvae, but the heavily infected amphipods ate far less than the healthy ones. For whatever reason, this parasite seems to cause D. villosus to lose its appetite, and given this crustacean's reputation of eating everything that it can get its claws around, this may have significant ecological ramifications. It could mean that C. dikerogammari may be subtly reducing the impact these amphipods have on the areas where they have been introduced.

But why would heavily-infected D. villosus, which would have much of their muscle mass already converted to parasite spores by C. dikerogammari, be more active? Well, it could just be an odd manifestation of the disease, but if it is, it is certainly a useful one for this parasite - as it depends upon cannibalism for transmission to new hosts. Dikerogammarus villosus are rather homely creatures and usually prefer to stay under a shelter and wait for potential prey to wander by. By getting their host out and about, C. dikerogammari might increase the chances that its host will either run into one of its cannibalistic buddies, or die out in the open where it can be scavenged by other D. villosus.

It seems that for this little invasive amphipod, no matter how far you go, you can never really run away from your past (foes).

Bacela-Spychalska, K., Rigaud, T., & Wattier, R. A. (2013). A co-invasive microsporidian parasite that reduces the predatory behaviour of its host Dikerogammarus villosus (Crustacea, Amphipoda). Parasitology 141: 254-258.

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