"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

November 23, 2015

Accacoelium contortum

Today, we are featuring a parasite that lives on the ocean sunfish (Mola mola) which happens to be the heaviest known living bony fish in the world. One can say that it is a truth universally acknowledged (by myself at least) that any sufficiently large animal must be in want of some parasite, and the sunfish is no exception. Its massive body is a prized piece of real estate for a wide variety of parasitic organisms.

Sunfish gill with arrows indicating the location of A. contortum
From Fig. 1 of the paper
Accacoelium contortum is the most commonly reported species of sunfish parasite, but even though they are numerous, not much is known about their biology. It is a digenean trematode - or parasitic fluke - and while most trematode flukes are parasites that live in the intestinal tract of their final host, A. contortum is a bit different. Occasionally you might find some of them in the gastrointestinal tract - which is where you'd expect to find most adult flukes - but more often found in the sunfish's mouth, gills, and pharynx (the part which roughly corresponds to back of the throat). Such a location is highly unusual for a trematode, it is akin to finding a seal living up a tree.

Scientists in Spain examined the parasites of 106 sunfish which were caught as bycatch and found that almost half (47.2%) were infected with A. contortum. Most of the flukes were found on the gills, some in the back of the throat near the pharyngeal teeth (which are a set of teeth that ray-finned fishes have at the back of their throat) and only a few were in the stomach. They noticed that usually the gills on the fish's right side are more heavily infected - this asymmetrical distribution is similar to what has been observed for other parasites, where they tend to congregated towards one side of the host, though in this case it's not entirely clear why they do this. In addition to preferentially hanging out on one side of the host, they also tend to congregate in clusters comprised of dozens of individuals, with those in the pharynx forming larger groups than those on the gills.

While A. contortum seems to do quite well in its rather unusual (for a trematode) habitat, the basic body plan for trematode is that of an internal parasite. So how does one modify a body plan for living inside the cosy confine of a host's body to a life clinging on to the more exposed parts of the host? Fortunately for A. contortum there are some functional overlaps between living in a fish's intestine versus living on its gills. While it lacks the hooks and sucker clamps of monogenean flatworms which are specialised for ectoparasitism, A. contortum has co-opted its large and muscular ventral sucker for hanging on to the sunfish's gills. Other trematode species use their ventral sucker to attach to the intestinal wall. In A. contortum it also function as the main attachment organ, but on a different part of the host's body. Additionally, this fluke's hind body appears to be long and prehensile, which it might to able to use to grip like a chameleon's tail (to a limited degree).
Left: Anatomical drawing of A. contortum, Right: Scanning electron microscope photo of the parasite's front
Image from Fig. 2. of the paper
The parasite's attachment also cause the surrounding host tissue to grow around them. This is most likely part of the sunfish's immune response, sealing the parasites off from the rest of the body. But this might actually work to the parasite's advantage because now it sits in a cosy little flesh bag which is tightly secured to the host body. The scientists who conducted the study also noticed that A. contortum has a series of tiny bumps and protrusions around the front of its body. They suggested that the fluke might actually be secreting growth factors which encourage host tissue growth through those bumps. Other parasitic flukes have been known to secrete proteins which manipulate host tissue growth, so it is possible that A. contortum is also capable of doing so. This is also supported by the observation that those protrusions are not found on immature flukes or those that live in the digestive tract which is more sheltered than the sunfish's gills.

The way that A. contortum apparently manipulates the sunfish's tissue is rather reminisce of how gall wasp induces their host plants to form a protective gall. While those galls protect their inhabitant against predators, in this case A. contortum, the flesh bag that it induces provide the parasite with a shelter on an otherwise exposed and turbulent location.

Ahuir-Baraja, A. E., Padrós, F., Palacios-Abella, J. F., Raga, J. A., & Montero, F. E. (2015). Accacoelium contortum (Trematoda: Accacoeliidae) a trematode living as a monogenean: morphological and pathological implications. Parasites & Vectors 8: 540.

P.S. I recently wrote a post about prehistoric/fossil parasites (which you can read here). On a related note I also wrote an article for The Conversation which focuses specifically on the fossil evidence for (non-avian) dinosaur parasites - you can check it out here.

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