|Top right: newly hatched nauplii, Top left: Copedpodite V stage, Bottom: Adult female with eggs|
Image composited from photos from Fig.1, 5, and 6. of the paper
This post is about study on Balaenophilus manatorum - a tiny parasitic copepod that lives on sea turtles. How does a tiny crustacean like that manage to find their way onto a turtle in the wide expanse of the sea? Do they jump on board when the turtle come into contact with each other, or can the larval stage swim on their own? Obviously they have managed to find a way because this copepod is very common among the juvenile loggerheads in the western Mediterranean, with over 80 percent of loggerhead turtles infected with B. manatorum. Given how small they are (the adult copepod is only about a millimetre long), it seems as if they would be barely a nuisance to their host. But when they occur in large numbers, they can be an serious menace. And they seem to have a very particular taste. It was thought that B. manatorum feed mostly (if not exclusively) on sea turtle skin.
To find out more about how B. manatorum infect their hosts and what they feed on, a team of scientists did a series of studies on some B. manatorum which were removed from a batch of sea turtle hatchlings. These hatchlings were being reared at the Sea Turtle Rescue Centre (ARCA del Mar) - a rescue and rehabilitation for sea turtles in Spain. They came from a brood of eggs that was removed from a beach frequent by tourist to ensure their safety, but during their stay at the centre, many of them develop symptoms of infestation by B. manatorum, each of them infected with about 300 B. manatorum and one unlucky turtle was hosting over 1400 copepods. While removing the copepods from the turtles, the research team collected some of the egg-bearing female copepods that were on the turtles, and reared them until their eggs hatched into larvae for the further study.
In the feeding trials, the copepods were offered a menu selection consisting of: flakes from the baleen plates of a fin whale, fish skin (from a blue whiting), green alga, loggerhead turtle skin flakes (from some hatchlings that had succumbed to B. manatorum infestation). All those items were dyed with a stain to track if they get ingested. They confirmed that these copepod only ate turtle skin flakes and didn't touch the other items on the menu. Other species of Balaenophilus have been recorded from the baleen plates of whales, but B. manatorum feed exclusively on turtle skin. From the moment it is born, B. manatorum is equipped with mouthparts which are well-suited for scrapping flakes from hard flat surfaces, such as the skin of a turtle. So it is no wonder heavy infestations of B. manatorum can cause severe lesions and skin erosions in turtles, especially for the more vulnerable hatchlings
But B. manatorum still need to reach the turtle in the first place. When placed in a dish of seawater, newly hatched copepods (called nauplii) seemed rather helpless, only able to crawl around. But if they manage to survive to grow into the subsequent stages called copepodite, they will develop legs that would allow them to swim for a bit - just barely, and once they grow past a stage call Copepodite IV, they can swim well enough to reach another turtle on their own. It seems that this parasite relies mostly on the social behaviour of the turtle for transmission. Newly hatched B. manatorum nauplii cannot swim and would have to wait for the turtles to touch each other (for example during mating) to climb onboard another host (rather like how human lice are transmitted), whereas the copepodites and adults can just swim across if another turtle comes close enough
Therefore, these parasitic copepods may present as a kind of social cost to these turtles, since not only is a social communicable parasite, it can also be a sexually transmitted infection. For B. manatorum, their entire world really is found on the back of a turtle.
Domènech, F., Tomás, J., Crespo-Picazo, J. L., García-Párraga, D., Raga, J. A., & Aznar, F. J. (2017). To Swim or Not to Swim: Potential Transmission of Balaenophilus manatorum (Copepoda: Harpacticoida) in Marine Turtles. PloS One 12(1), e0170789.