Sperm whales are the largest toothed animal alive and they are capable of diving down to depths of 1200 m to feast on cephalopods (including the planet's largest cephalopods, the colossal and giant squids), but despite their size and abilities, these leviathans can fall victim to a range of cunning ectoparasites, including…Whale Lice!
|Line drawing of adult female Neocyamus physeteris from Fig. 2 of this paper, SEM photograph from Fig. 2 of this paper|
Whale lice are not really lice in a taxonomic sense. Instead, they are classed as amphipods, crustaceans related to the so-called "lawn shrimps" which are found in some back gardens, but with more specialised features for hanging on to a free-swimming whale. Neocyamus physeteris’ body is flattened like a leaf but largely segmented and have legs tipped with hooked edges that act like crustacean crampons to ensure a consistently ample footing. Otherwise the lice would find itself cast adrift without a home or food supply to die alone in the deep. They also possess sharpened mandibles to munch through the host whales epidermis (top skin layer) while for breathing it has two pairs of gills lining its underside towards the front half of the body. Neocyamus physeteris’ head is quite small in comparison to the rest of its body and is dotted with a pair of tiny eyes along with two antennae. Their white colouration almost gives off a dandruff-like appearance against the whale’s darker complexion (though they would be well camouflaged on Moby Dick if it had existed and was also female!).
They are so intertwined with their host that their life cycle that they lack a free-swimming larval phase or active transmission to other whales, offering limited opportunities to move between hosts (unless during social activities where the whales may rub against one another). So it is fair to say that they live, feed and breed on top of their own biological ark, from the sea's clear surface waters to dark depths of the twilight zone, quite a dependent but extreme lifestyle!
Like most whale lice, little is known about the habits of N. physeteris, but it is so specialised for its life-style that whenever the whale dies, the lice would also kick the can as they require a live host. Hanging onto a host may not seem like an exciting lifestyle, but it is a highly beneficial strategy (for the lice at least). Given its tendency to devour sperm whale skin mainly in areas that are sheltered from water movements like the genital slits, body creases or injured skin, this allows the lice to take advantage of a lifetime supply of renewable food. In other words, the lice won’t starve while on a whale, however there will be an increase demand for firm footholds as the parasite population increases, so the species' overall success is not necessarily always good for the individual louse. The whale probably doesn’t suffer too badly when only a handful of lice are present however a colony must surely be highly irritating to say the least.
The strain imposed on N. physeteris at different depths due to the varying degrees of pressure imposed between the surface and abyss would far exceed our own limits. Undoubtedly there must be a risk posed by potential fishy predators on occasion given the lack of cover afforded by a whale’s skin. However, the benefits appear to outweigh the risks - otherwise they would cease to exist as a species. There is still much to learn about these fascinating parasites but until new means of studying the movements and behaviours of these small, somewhat inconspicuous amphipods on top of a large mobile host like a sperm whale are developed, it could take a while to unravel the intricacies of this skin serrating invertebrate!
Hermosilla, C., Silva, L.M.R., Prieto, R., Kleinertz, S., Taubert, A. and Silva, M.A. (2015). Endo- and ectoparasites of large whales (Cetartiodactyla: Balaenopteridae, Physeteridae): Overcoming difficulties in obtaining appropriate samples by non- and minimally-invasive methods. International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife. 4, 414-420.
Leung, Y. (1967) An illustrated key to the species of whale-lice (Amphipoda, Cyamidae), ectoparasites of Cetacea, with a guide to the literature. Crustaceana 12, 279-291.
Oliver, G. and Trilles, J.P. (2000). Crustacés parasites et épizoítes du cachalot, Physeter catodon Linnaeus, 1758 (Cetacea, Odontoceti), dans le golfe du lion (Méditerranánée occidentale). Parasite. 7, 311-321.
This post was written by Sean O’Callaghan