"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

March 27, 2016

Confluaria podicipina

Most of the time, being infected with parasites is costly to the host in some way. But sometimes there might be circumstance when the presence of parasites might be a good thing. For brine shrimps (known to most as "sea monkeys"), it seems like tapeworm larvae might be a worthwhile accessory - admittedly one that turns you bright red and make you more likely to be eaten by a bird.

Photo of infected (red) and uninfected (transparent) brine shrimps
From Fig 1 of the paper
The study being featured today were based on a population of brine shrimps living at salt marshes in southwestern Spain which are infected by nine different species of tapeworm larvae. The most common species are Flamingolepis liguloides (which have previously been featured on this blog here) and Confluaria podicipina. At the site where the scientists conducted this study, about two-thirds of the brine shrimps were infected with either F. liguloides or C. podicipina, and about a third of them are unlucky enough to be simultaneous infected by both species (alongside a bunch of other less common species).

All these parasites are using the shrimps as a temporary vehicle for getting into final host where they can mature into adult worms, and for that to happen, the shrimp needs to be eaten by a bird. However, in the environment that these shrimps dwell in, tapeworms like C. podicipina can convey some unexpected benefits. It seems that shrimps infected with tapeworms are more resistant towards arsenic.

Previously, we have featured a study on how tapeworms can act as a sink for heavy metal in seabirds soaking up the toxin before they get absorbed into the host's tissue. But that study was on adult tapeworms living in the gut of a bird host. Though they are also tapeworms, the physiological interaction between an adult tapeworm in the gut of a vertebrate host is very different to that of a larval tapeworm residing inside a small arthropod.
Flamigolepis liguloides cysticerocoid (larger one on the left) and Confluaria podicipina cysticercoid (indicated by arrows)
From Fig 2 of the paper
In this case, the tapeworm larvae increased the level of various fatty substances - C. podicipina increases triglyceride level, while F. liguloides increase the amount of lipid in the host. Together, these fatty droplets help soak up any arsenic in the brine shrimp. Additionally, the tapeworms also help the shrimp sequester carotenoid which enhances the shrimp's capacity to produce antioxidant enzymes which mops up harmful free radicals, and help the shrimp deal with the presence of arsenic in their bodies.

Whereas F. liguloides seems to be present in high numbers all the time, C. podicipina only appear in April. This might be related to the seasonal movement of their final host - which are flamingos in the case of F. liguloides, but for C. podicipina, the final hosts are grebes, which only visit the lake during certain time of year. Indeed, that was the finding of a previous study which has been featured on this blog.

Additionally, it seems that the brine shrimps are better at handling arsenic in May when they are mostly only infected with F. liguloides. So why is that the case? Well, it could be that (1) C. podicipina is not as good at helping their host deal with arsenic, (2) it is harmful to the host in other ways that offset their detoxification effects, and (3) it only appears during the warmer months when the brine shrimp's overall resistance to arsenic is lower anyway, so it simply coincided with their appearance.

Of course, neither F. liguloides and C. podicipina are doing this as some kind of favour to the host - C. podicipina and its fellow tapeworm larvae are doing this for their own benefit. They are manipulating host physiology to make the host a more suitable shelter and vehicle for reaching the final host - increasing the fat content of the host makes it a cosier site for development, and increasing the carotenoid level makes the shrimp bright red and stand out more to the bird host. But it just so happens that all these changes also have a side effect of benefiting the shrimp, even if temporarily, before they end up between the beaks of a bird

Sánchez, M. I., Pons, I., Martínez-Haro, M., Taggart, M. A., Lenormand, T., & Green, A. J. (2016). When Parasites are Good for Health: Cestode Parasitism Increases Resistance to Arsenic in Brine Shrimps. PLOS Pathogen 12(3): e1005459.

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