"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

January 11, 2015

Pennella balaenopterae

Photo of Pennella balaenopterae embedded on
the side of the porpoise's peduncle (from Fig 2 of the paper)
Most people usually think of copepods as tiny crustaceans which live as zooplankton near the, and for most part that is true. But it might be a surprise to some of you that over a third of all known copepods are actually parasitic and they live on/in all kinds of aquatic animals. One particularly successful family of such copepods is the Pennelidae - not that you would necessarily recognise them as crustacean if you are to ever see one. While most species in this family live on fish, the parasite that we are featuring today has evolved to be a bit different. Instead of infecting fish, it has managed to colonised aquatic mammals - specifically cetaceans (whales).

Whales are among the largest known animals to have ever lived, and P. balaenopterae also happens to be the largest known copepod (most free-living copepod are tiny zooplankton measuring a few millimetres in length). As its name indicates, this parasite was initially found on baleen whales, such as fin whales, but it has been reported from different species of toothed whales as well. Despite being known to science since the 19th century, there is very little information about the biology of this peculiar parasite.

The cephalothorax or the "head" of Pennella balaenopterae
which is deeply buried in the host's blubber
The paper we are featuring today reports this parasite infecting harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena relicta) in the Aegean Sea. These parasites each measured over 10 centimetres long and most of it is buried deep in the blubber. In this study, Pennella balaenopterae were mostly found on the porpoises' back and abdominal area, probably because those areas are rich in easily accessible blood vessels that the parasite can tap into.

Even though technically it is an ectoparasite (external parasite) as it can be found dangling on the host's external surface, a significant portion of its body is actually deeply buried in the porpoises' tissue (not unlike the shark-infecting barnacle Anelasma squalicola which was featured last year). Hence some parasitologists call them "mesoparasites"; they are not strictly internal parasites (endoparasites) such as many parasitic worms, but they do interact with the host's internal tissues in some major waya.

Species like P. balaenopterae shows that over evolutionary time, some parasites can make rather radical shifts in their preferred host if given the opportunity to do so. Last year I wrote about an elephant blood fluke which has colonised rhinos because both of its mammalian host share the same habitat. Indeed, both whales and fish that are infected other pennelid copepods are both marine animals, so there have been many opportunity for such a host jump to occur.

However, it is one thing to jump from one large, terrestrial mammal into another, it is quite another to branch off and infect an entirely different class of animal which has a very different anatomy and physiology to the ancestral host. More studies will be needed to find out what makes P. balaenopterae different from its related species, as well as when and how it made the leap from living on scale-covered bony fishes, to burying themselves in the tissue of air-breathing blubbery whales.

Danyer, E., Tonay, A. M., Aytemiz, I., Dede, A., Yildirim, F., & Gurel, A. (2014) First report of infestation by a parasitic copepod (Pennella balaenopterae) in a harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) from the Aegean Sea: a case report. Veterinarni Medicina, 59: 403-407.

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