"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

December 14, 2014

Gnathia maxillaris

Today's blog post features a study in which an infestation at an aquarium allowed a group of scientists to work out the life cycle of a common parasite. Now, we are not talking about your lounge room fish tank, but the biggest exhibition tank at Aquarium of Barcelona. The exhibition aquarium, call Oceanarium, measures 37000 cubic metres and is home to over 3000 fish of 80 different species. But amidst those 80 different species, they have a parasite which has made its way into the mix.

Adult female with larval brood (left) and newly-hatched zuphea (right)
Photos from Fig. 1 of the paper
The parasite in question - Gnathia maxillaris - belongs to a family of little blood-sucking crustaceans call Gnathiidae (we have previously featured gnathiids on this blog here). You can think of them as being like ticks of the sea - not only are they blood suckers, but they also alternates between a blood-feeding and a free-living stage during their development (like a tick). The parasitic stage of a gnathiid is called a Zuphea - it needs to attach and feed on a host for a while before it drops off to moult into its next stage call a Pranzia. The pranzia is free-living stage, but it doesn't stay that way for long, as the next step of its development is to grow into a slightly larger zuphea which jumps right back onboard a fish for a blood meal. A gnathiid needs to go through this parasitic-then-not-parasitic-then-parasitic-again development cycle three consecutive times (each successive stages are called Z1, P1, Z2, P2, Z3, P3) before it can become an adult (and you thought going through puberty was bad!)

There are over 190 known species of gnathiids from all across the world, but the full life-cycle has only been described for four of those species, and now G. maxillaris join that very short list. Even though G. maxillaris is relatively well-studied and fairly widespread across the Atlantic Ocean as well as the Baltic and Mediterranean seas, the complete life-cycle of G. maxillaris was unknown until now because much of this parasite's development takes place out of sight on the open sea.

But the infestation at Aquarium of Barcelona provided scientists with a great opportunity to study this life-cycle. They harvested G. maxillaris larvae by exploiting their natural attraction to light; at night, they turned on a set of light installed at the bottom of the aquarium, then pump the sea water through a fine-meshed plankton net that have also been placed there to trap the parasite larvae.

Clockwise from upper left:
Adult female, adult male, female carrying eggs
From Fig. 2 of the paper
With the harvested parasites, they exposed them to different species of potential fish hosts to observe their behaviour. They noticed that newly-hatched zuphea (Z1) cannot feed on blood because their mouthpart is so small the fish blood cells cannot fit through them. Instead, they feed on lymph and have to subsequently grow into the larger zuphea stages before they can incorporate blood into their diet.

They also discovered that G. maxillaris has different preference for specific parts of the fish's body, and this has consequences for the parasite's growth. While they can attach pretty much anywhere on the fish's body, they have a taste for the base of the fins, near the gill covers, or around the eyes - basically areas of high blood flow and where it would be harder for the fish to rub them off. They also noticed zuphea that attach themselves to the fish's fin feed for longer and takes more time to develop into a pranzia, most likely because there is less blood flow there than other parts of the body, so the parasite needs to stick around for longer to get a full meal.

In all, G. maxillaris' entire life-cycle takes about three months to complete, but that is if the water temperature is at 17.5 °C; if the surround temperature is 20 °C, then the parasite would take only two months to complete this cycle. At higher temperature, the female parasites also grew larger and produced more eggs. This is particularly pertinent to the current situation because one of the (many) consequences of increasing ocean temperature might mean in the future, the seas will be filled with more gnathiids that grow faster than ever before, which is bad news for fish. Not only are they blood-suckers, like ticks on land, gnathiids can also act as vectors for various other parasites.

While an infestation of tiny "ticks of the sea" might not be the best news for a national aquarium, when life hands you an infestation - you might as well do some science with it!

Hispano, C., Bulto, P., & Blanch, A. R. (2014). Life cycle of the fish parasite Gnathia maxillaris (Crustacea: Isopoda: Gnathiidae). Folia Parasitologica 61: 277-284.

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