|Photo of infected Janolus fuscus
used with permission from Jeff Goddard
Ismaila and other copepods of the Splanchnotrophidae family are specialist parasites of sea slugs and they can get pretty big in comparison with their host, taking up substantial room and resources. Ismaila belciki infects Janolus fuscus, a nudibranch found along the west coast of North America from Alaska to California, as well as the shores of northern Japan. In some areas, such as Coos Bay, Oregon where the study we are featuring today took place, up to 80% of the slugs are infected with this odd creature. Having such a big parasite sitting in the middle of slug's body soaking up nutrient obviously carries some kind of cost - but just how much?
|Photo of a female Ismaila belciki with an
embraced dwarf male front and centre.
Photo by and used with permission
from Maya Wolf
While I. belciki did not seem to interfere with sea slug's growth, infected slugs do have a lower survival rate. Additionally, they have shrunken gonads that are only capable of producing about half as many eggs as healthy slugs. But the reproductive capacity of those afflicted sea slug suffers not just in terms of quantity, but in quality as well. In addition to producing fewer eggs, infected slugs also produced eggs that were smaller, and the baby slugs that hatch out of them also have lower survival rates.
So it seems I. belciki can be very harmful indeed, but it cause even greater harm if the parasite itself is breeding. The researchers noted that I. belciki bearing developing egg sacs exert a greater toll on the host than egg-free parasites. A female I. belciki is an egg-laying machine that can churn out over 88000 embryos per month and all the expenses for that are paid for by the host. To fuel the development of its eggs, I. belciki draws from the same pool of resources that the host normally use for its own egg production. Slugs with brooding I. belciki produce even fewer eggs than those that are "just" stuck with an egg-free parasite.
It is as if the sea slug is a factory that has been retooled from solely making slug babies into one which now has to divert some of its attention and raw material to making parasite babies too, via a proxy in the form of a female I. belciki. Given that Janolus fuscus usually only live for five months, by shorten their lives and severely reducing their reproductive capacity, I. belciki might actually be putting a natural check on the population growth of these flamboyant nudibranchs.
Wolf, M., & Young, C. M. (2014). Impacts of an endoparasitic copepod, Ismaila belciki, on the reproduction, growth and survivorship of its nudibranch host, Janolus fuscus. International Journal for Parasitology 44: 391-401.
P.S. I will be attending the annual Australian Society for Parasitology annual conference in Canberra, Australia between 30th June to 3rd July. So watch for tweets about highlights from conference at my Twitter @The_Episiarch! Meanwhile, I have written a article for The Conversation about the crab-castrating barnacle Sacculina carcini - you can read it here.