"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

October 23, 2016

Alaria spp.

Today we are featuring a guest post by Dr Emily Uhrig, a postdoctoral research fellow currently at Linköping University, Sweden. She has written a post on a study that she and her colleagues conducted on a parasite that congregate in the tail of garter snakes, and the role that these reptiles play in the life cycle of this parasite.

Parasites are found in a tremendous range of hosts spanning the animal kingdom and beyond. However, the consequences of parasites for their hosts have not been thoroughly studied in many cases and this is particularly true for parasites infecting snakes. Even in very common snakes, such as the garter snake which is widespread throughout North America and has been studied extensively with regard to many aspects of their biology, their parasites have received little attention.

Histological cross-section of an infected snake's tail
(m = mesocercariae, v = vertebra)
During my PhD research, I aimed to shed light on snake parasites by focusing on the red-sided garter snake of Manitoba, Canada, and I was especially interested in a trematode of the genus Alaria. Interestingly, Alaria infections in snakes have been noted in the literature for years, but mostly in ecological surveys of parasite communities, and their possible effects on the snakes’ evolutionary fitness were unclear.

Alaria spp. have complex life cycles consisting of a snail host in which Alaria eggs multiplies into asexual stages called sporocysts, which then produce multiple clonal larvae called cercariae. These cercariae emerge from the snail and infect frogs. Within the frog, Alaria develop into mesocercariae, a non-reproductive ‘resting’ stage. A mammalian carnivore, usually a canid (e.g., coyote) or mustelid (e.g., mink), serves as the final host in which the parasite reaches sexual maturity. So where does the snake fit in?

It turns out, the garter snake is a paratenic host, also known as a transport or reservoir host, which ends up accumulating Alaria mesocercariae through eating frogs. Paratenic hosts are not physiologically necessary for the parasite’s development as a part of its life cycle, but they help bridge ecological gaps between hosts. In this instance, the snake, which has quite a penchant for frogs, helps Alaria move from a (mostly) aquatic intermediate host to its terrestrial final host. Interestingly, Alaria spp. can infect many species paratenically - including humans; however, since relatively few humans fall prey to carnivores, Alaria that end up in humans are usually at a dead end.
Tail morphologies observed in red-sided garter snakes. Arrows mark the position of the cloaca.
Photos modified from Figure 1 of the paper.
Once inside the snake, the life of Alaria gets even more interesting. In the field, we commonly observe snakes to have ‘puffy’ tails where the end of the tail is obviously swollen and often discoloured. These puffy tails are fragile and can rupture with the gentlest handling or even by the snake’s own movement along the ground. The ruptured tail oozes a pink-coloured fluid which, on close inspection with the naked eye, clearly contains moving organisms, and microscopic examination reveals multitudes of writhing Alaria mesocercariae. Thus, the parasites apparently make a rather impressive migration through the tissues from the snake’s gut to its tail.

Left: Ruptured tail with ‘ooze’ containing Alaria; Right: Alaria mesocercaria from Figure 2 of the paper.

It is not uncommon for a snake’s tail to harbor several thousand mesocercariae, and the record holder in our studies had over 6000 mesocercariae in its tail. Alaria infections seem to be ubiquitous in our study populations as all snakes examined have been infected to some degree. Parasite mesocercariae are nearly impossible to visually identify to species level because different species are very similar in morphology. Thus, we used genetic analyses to determine that the snakes in our study population are often co-infected with at least three different Alaria species (primarily A. mustelae and A. marcianae, but also another as yet unidentified species).

Having identified the infection, the next obvious question to ask was, what are these parasites doing inside the snake’s tail? To answer this, we collected tails from recently dead snakes and prepared them for histology. Examining those samples, revealed that, in severe infections, the tail essentially becomes a bag of parasites and the tail musculature is destroyed (similar to what another parasite – Curtuteria australis – does to the foot of a New Zealand clam), likely through compressive effects of so many parasites in a relatively small space. The mesocercariae tend to be surrounded by pockets of mucous, the accumulation of which leads to the swollen puffy tails. The source of the mucous (host or parasite) is not entirely clear, but we believe it is the host’s body attempting to ‘wall-off’ the infection. Interestingly, some highly infected snakes do not have puffy tails, which suggests there may be variation in host tolerance of the infection.

As parasites destroy the tail musculature, the connection of the tail to the rest of the body is weakened and the likelihood of tail loss is increased. Loss of the tail is probably beneficial to the parasite because it could help facilitate transfer to the definitive host. In an attempt to catch a fleeing snake, a predator may come away with only the tail, especially if the tail is fragile, so aggregating there could prove a useful strategy for Alaria transmission. As we often observe wild snakes that are missing portions of their tails (stub tails), it may be common for predators to end up snacking on only a tail.

Unlike lizards, snakes cannot regrow their tails so tail loss is permanent, and also costly. Previous work found that males with stub tails have compromised reproductive ability. During the garter snake’s mating season, as many as 100 males compete for a single female. In these “mating balls”, males use their tails to wrestle with one another for access to the female. Males with stub tails are less successful competitors and much less likely to obtain a mating.

For females, tail loss also has reproductive implications because males appear to rely on female tail length to align properly with her cloaca during mating. When attempting to mate with a stub-tailed female, males can misjudge the location of her cloaca, reducing the changes of a successful copulation. Thus, through mechanical impairment, Alaria infections can have a direct effect on the fitness of both male and female snakes.

The association of Alaria and garter snakes was first mentioned in the literature nearly a century ago, but has received little attention until very recently. Thus, one need not visit exotic locations to learn new things about host-parasite associations as there is still much to learn about the consequences of parasites even in common species.

Uhrig, E. J., Spagnoli, S. T., Tkach, V. V., Kent, M. L., & Mason, R. T. (2015). Alaria mesocercariae in the tails of red-sided garter snakes: evidence for parasite-mediated caudectomy. Parasitology Research 114: 4451-4461.

This post was written by Dr Emily Uhrig.

October 6, 2016

Peltogaster sp.

Most people are familiar with how barnacles look like - sedentary creatures which filter the surrounding water for food while being stuck attached to rocks or other hard surfaces. Parasitic barnacles on the other hand looks nothing like those creatures. In fact, they don't look anything like what most people would expect an animal to look like. The most well-know example of a parasitic barnacle is Sacculina carcini, but that infamous species is only one of an entire order of such body-snatching parasites that infect crustaceans like crabs and crayfish.

Left: Peltogaster externa attached to their hermit crab host.  
Right: The externa (orange) and interna (green) of Peltogaster in its hermit crab host
Photos from Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 of the paper
These parasitic barnacles belong to a group call Rhizocephala and the body of the adult parasite can broadly be divided into two parts: The "externa" which is the bulbous reproductive organ that sticks out of the host's abdomen, and the "interna" which is found inside their host's body. The interna is a network of root-like tendrils which wrap themselves around the host's organs (hence the name "Rhizocephala" which roughly translates into "root-head").

Most depiction of rhizocephalans have those parasitic roots running throughout the entire body of the host - this is based on an illustration of S. carncini drawn by the famous artist and biologist Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel's original drawing has been copied by many others since it was first published in the book Kunstformen der Natur, and has been treated as the definitive depiction of the rhizocephalan interna. But the thing is, Haeckel has never actual seen a Sacculina in person - he simply based his illustration upon descriptions of the parasite in a monography published in 1884. So while Haeckel's original drawing is iconic and has been replicated countless time in many books, that depiction of these parasitic barnacle is not entirely accurate. Much like tropes in other areas of scientific illustration (such as depictions of extinct animals), Haeckel's depiction of Sacculina has been faithfully and unquestioningly used and copied ever since.

It is understandable that not much is known about the true three-dimensional structure of the rhizocephalan interna - because of its complex and delicate nature, it would really difficult to tease apart all those roots which are tightly intertwined with host tissue to get an accurate picture of the parasite's extensive root network. But now there is technology available which can resolve this question. In the study featured in this post, a group of researchers used X-ray microtomography to obtain a 3D image of these parasites' root network inside their hosts. They performed this procedure on five species of rhizocephalan barnacles collected from the coast of Norway and the United States; four of the species were hermit crab parasites belonging to the genus Peltogaster, and one - Briarosaccus tennellus - was from the hairy crab.

From the microCT scans, they found that the barnacle's "roots" are not spread evenly throughout the body, but were wrapped around certain organs, with most concentrated near the hepatopancreas  - an organ found in crustaceans which is also known as the digestive gland, which would be prime place to suck up nutrients. And in contrast to Haeckel oft-cited and copied drawing, none of the roots actually penetrate into the muscles. While the roots of the four Peltogaster species were mostly wrapped around the hepatopancreas, the roots of Briarosaccus also extended to the host's brain and central nervous system, which may explain how some of these parasites can manipulate the behaviour of their crustacean host.

Parasite can often manipulate their host's behaviour and physiology to an amazing degree. While many of those interactions are very complex, with the use of techniques such as micro CT, we can begin to unravel the intricacies of how these body-snatchers interact with and manipulate their hosts.

Noever, C., Keiler, J., & Glenner, H. (2016). First 3D reconstruction of the rhizocephalan root system using MicroCT. Journal of Sea Research 113:51-57