"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

July 29, 2016

Gordionus kimberleyae

We have featured hairworms (Nematomorpha) quite a few times before on this blog, but for those who are new to them, they are parasitic body snatchers of insects and other terrestrial arthropods. The hairworm larvae are parasitic and must develop inside an arthropod host, but the adult worm is free-living and has to enter a water body in order to reproduce. To achieve that end, once they reach maturity, they make their host seek out a body of water and jump in, at which point the adult worm make their exit. This can look quite dramatic / horrifying to onlookers as the length of a fully grown hairworm can be several times longer than the host itself.

Specimens of Gordionus kimberlyae emerging from beetles, from Figure 2 of this paper
Hairworms are found all over the world, and the study we are featuring today shows that they can thrive even at the Arctic Circle, in the most northern parts of Canada. Despite the harsh conditions there, Arctic Canada is home to over 2000 species of terrestrial arthropods, including many species of beetles - some of which are host to parasitic hairworms.

In this study, a team of researchers sampled insects from twelve different locations in northern parts of Canada, and at five of those locations, they found seven species of beetles which are host to hairworms. All the hairworms they found belonged to a single species - a newly discovered one that has never been described before. They named it Gordionus kimberleyae, and these parasites happened to be most common in beetles on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

At Banks Island, 13.4% of the beetles that the research team collected were found with G. kimberleyae emerging from them. Most of the hairworms were found in beetles that were hanging around near water, and it's possible that those infected beetles weren't there by accident - as mentioned above, hairworms are known to modify their host's behaviour so that they would seek out water when the parasite is ready to exit their host. Most beetles were only infected with a single worm, which is bad enough considering how big they are and what they do to the host, but there were a few beetles that had two or even three inside them.

So how do these parasite manage to survive in the frigid cold of Arctic Canada? While adult hairworms don't do particular well in cold conditions, they are very short lived and die shortly after they reproduce anyway during the warmer months. However, the larvae have adaptations for surviving in freezing conditions.

In addition to the seven species found in this study, it's not clear how many other ground beetles that G. kimberleyae infects. The ground beetles which these hairworms infect are carnivorous insects, which means they probably acquire their hairworms from eating flying insects that have aquatic larval stage (such as mosquitoes) which can become host to these parasites' larvae. The beetles occupy an important part of the food web as the link between tiny invertebrates and larger insect-eating animals. But the hairworms may also be keeping their population in check.

Additionally, by causing their host to jump in the water, they are transferring where nutrients are flowing in the environment. While these beetles would usually be eaten by land-dwelling animals, by dunking their host in water, the hairworms may also be feeding a range of aquatic animals that depend on their hairworm's "donation" of dying insects into their realm. Despite their gruesome methods, parasites also play important roles in many ecosystems.

Ernst, C. M., Hanelt, B., & Buddle, C. M. (2016). Parasitism of ground beetles (Coleoptera: Carabidae) by a new species of hairworm (Nematomorpha: Gordiida) in Arctic Canada. Journal of Parasitology 102: 327-335

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