"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

August 1, 2014

Ismaila sp.

Those who have been reading this blog for a while might recall that this time last year, I featured some guest posts written by students from my Evolutionary Parasitology  (ZOOL329/529) class. Well, it is happening again for this year! For those who are unaware of this, one of the assessment I set for the students is for them to summarise a paper that they have read, and write it in the manner of a blog post, much like the ones you see on this and other blogs. 

I also told them that the best blog posts from the class will be selected for re-posting (with their permission) here on the Parasite of the Day blog. I am pleased to be presenting these posts from the ZOOL329/529 class of 2014. To kick things off, here's a post by Courtney Waters on a paper published in 2002 that documented the diversity of parasitic copepods that live inside sea slugs off the coast of Chile (see also this post from June this year).

Picture of infected sea slug from the paper
Bright colourful sea slugs are every diver’s ultimate find. Imagine getting up close to it with that macro lens and... wait, what's that protruding from the slug's side? They appear to be the egg sacs of an endoparasitic copepod - small crustaceans, which parasitises the insides of these soft‐bodied molluscs. The aim of the study I am writing about for this post was to expand existing knowledge about these endoparasites, particularly the genus Ismaila from the family Splanchnotrophidae. This particular genus is characterised by the presence of a pair of well-developed first appendages which are absent in related genera.

The six year study was based mainly in Chilean waters where different sea slug species were collected and examined for parasite infection. This was done simply by examining the sea slug externally without dissection as the egg sacs of the adult parasite protrude conspicuously from the abdominal wall of the host (see the accompanied figure). Over 2000 specimens from 47 species of sea slug were examined in such a manner and only 8 species of slugs were found to be parasitised by those copepods. These parasites are very host specific and each parasite species is only found in one host species. The overall infection rate was 13% which is the highest infection prevalence documented. Fortunately, these parasites only like the soft innards of our mollusc friends - otherwise I would not be so jealous of the scuba divers who were doing the collecting!

Obvious differences were seen between the infection rates of different host species, with some parasitised more than others. For example, in several species of hosts, only one individual was observed to be infected, whereas for other species the infection rate was almost 90%. The infection frequencies for two of the main sea slug host species did not vary much between years and seasons, though this would need to be verified with further studies. An additional result of the study was information on the evolution of these parasites. The disjunct distribution of the copepods along with their host groups suggest that these parasites had evolved from an ancestor that was not very host-specific, but as different populations became isolated, they evolved to be very specific to their hosts. This resulted in scattered pockets of area with high parasite abundance. As for why they have not spread out to wherever appropriate hosts are available, this is likely due to other life-cycle requirements of the parasite which are currently unknown.

In summary, the study found 4 new species of host for splanchnotrophid copepods, taking the world total to 47 host species (at least as of 2002 when this paper was published), with 12 of which being found in Chilean waters and 9 of them being host to copepods in the Ismaila genus. This means the waters of Chile have over a quarter of all known splanchnotrophid species. Additionally, the percentage of infected sea slug in Chile is ten times higher than anywhere else in the world - a fact that, if I was a sea slug in those waters, would probably give me the chills...

Schrödl, M. (2002). Heavy infestation by endoparasitic copepod crustaceans (Poecilostomatoida: Splanchnotrophidae) in Chilean opisthobranch gastropods, with aspects of splanchnotrophid evolution. Organisms Diversity & Evolution, 2: 19-26.

This post was written by Courtney Waters


  1. A really good post although it is perhaps worth noting that the research effort on these critters may have, at least up to 2002, been concentrated in Chilean waters.

  2. That's true - especially seeing as I've written a post about some newly published research on Ismaila back in June which was on a North American species.