"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 20, 2015

Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (revisited 2)

This is the fifth post in a series of blog posts written by students from my third year Evolutionary Parasitology unit (ZOOL329/529) class of 2015. This particular post was written by Kate Ives and it is about how a parasite messes with the migratory journey of monarch butterflies (you can read the previous post about hyena poop and tapeworms here).

Photo by David R. Tribble
We have all experienced that sluggish lack of energy when we’re ill – it’s much easier to hit the couch and rest up for a few days than get out and run a marathon, right? Well for the Monarch Butterfly, the choice is not always that easy! In order to find the best breeding and feeding sites, and avoid freezing in cold temperatures, most Monarchs undertake long and energetically costly migratory journeys during autumn each year.

Monarchs are commonly parasitised by the protozoan Ophryocystis ktroscirrba. The spores of this parasite are ingested by the Monarch caterpillars and asexually reproduce within the host's intestinal tract. When ingested in high numbers, these parasites have been shown to have considerable detrimental effects on the fitness and migration ability of the Monarchs. A pair of researchers set out to explored how monarchs infected by parasites exhibited different patterns in their flight endurance, speed, deceleration ability, and loss of body mass over their relative migration distances.

They raised 100 Monarch caterpillars in captivity and infected them with parasitic O. ktroscirrba. When they metamorphosed into adult butterflies, they were placed on an automated flight mill apparatus which was used to calculate the above mentioned parameters. The flight trials found that parasitised monarchs flew 14% shorter distances, at 16% slower speeds, and lost almost twice as much body mass as unparasitised Monarchs undertaking the same journey.

Just like a viral infection may sap our energy, O. ktroscirrba has a similar resource-consuming effect on Monarchs. The parasites inhibit the host’s ability to absorb nutrients and utilise stored energy for powered flight. Along with parasite-induced damage to tissues, muscles and membranes, this makes powered flight a much more effort-demanding activity. The parasites live in clusters inside the host’s intestinal walls, leading to water loss and faster dehydration. This is thought to account for the greater loss in body mass with each kilometre flown, as compared to unparasitised monarchs. These  constraints contribute to overall reduced larval survival rates, smaller adult body size, shorter lifespans, and therefore the inability to migrate efficiently or survive long enough to migrate or reproduce. It becomes a sheer battle of survival – the host throwing every defence at the rapidly reproducing parasites living inside it.

Photo by Dwight Sipler
But if all this energy is used in defences, how much  left  for migration? Quite often, the story ends with the death of the Monarch - an alarming occurrence that has thrown the species into a threatened status in many parts of the world. However, in a different light, these long-migratory journeys can be seen as a mechanism for reducing parasite prevalence in the Monarchs. The eradication of human diseases provides a perfect analogy for the pathogen-monarch dynamics. Whether through the cycle of life and death, or advancements in vaccines and modern medicine, when a disease is reduced or eliminated from a human population, the remaining population experiences increases in fitness and survival. In the same way, if Monarch migrations are energetically costly, and diseased hosts experience lower successful migrations, with each death the prevalence of the pathogens also decreases, and the remaining Monarch population becomes more adapted to fight off infections.

This insight into host-pathogen interactions also gives rise to possible areas of further research. Throw the effects of climate change and human activities into the mix, and we have the potential to develop a deeper understanding of the mighty Monarch, and its risk of parasitism. But let us not forget the importance of continuing research into the Monarch itself – its physiology and its behaviour. After all, we cannot truly study a parasite without first understanding its host!

Bradley, C. A. & Altizer, S. (2005). Parasites hinder monarch butterfly flight: implications for disease spread in migratory hosts. Ecology Letters 8, 290-300.

This post was written by Kate Ives

No comments:

Post a Comment