"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

November 12, 2019

Electrovermis zappum

Fish blood flukes are common parasites in the aquatic environment and many species have been described from all kinds of fish all over the world. However the full life cycle is only known for relatively few of such flukes, because while the adult parasite can be fairly common in the fish host population, the asexual stage living in the invertebrate host can be quite rare and difficult to find. The study featured in this blog post described the life cycle of Electrovermis zappum - a blood fluke that lives in the heart of the lesser electric ray, but spends part of its life cycle in a beach clam.

Left: An adult Electrovermis zappum, Right: the life cycle of E. zappum. From the Graphical Abstract of the paper
When it comes metamorphosis and transformation, most people usually think of caterpillars turning into butterflies, but such level of change pales in comparison to the different forms that digenean flukes take on at each stage of their life cycles. The adult E. zappum fluke is a long skinny worm about 1.5 mm long, living in the heart of an electric ray. Over half of its length is composed of reproductive organs, devoted to producing a steady stream of eggs. The eggs that manage to make their way out of the ray's body hatch into cilia-covered larvae called miracidia. This microscopic ciliated mote then infects a coquina clam.

It then undergoes another set of transformation as it enters the asexual stage of the life cycle. The lone miracidium turns itself into a clone army of self-propagating units call sporocysts which take over the clam's body. These sporocysts look like microscopic marbles, each measuring about one-tenth of a millimetre across, and packed within those translucent spheres are the next stage of the fluke's life cycle. Within each sporocyst are half a dozen skinny, tadpole-shaped larvae called cercariae - these develop and grow within the nurturing wall of the sporocysts until they are ready to be released into the water column, at which point the sporocyst will start growing the next batch of cercariae from its reserve of undifferentiated germinal cell balls.

A single infected clam can be filled with several hundred of those sporocysts, which occupy the space where the clam's gonads would have been, with some also spilling over into the digestive system. This process essentially turns the clam into a parasite factory that churns out thousands upon thousands of infective fluke larvae, saturating the surrounding waters. Both the bottom-dwelling electric ray and the coquina clam are found right next to each other in the swash zone of beach, so the cercariae are released right where the rays are likely to be.

Most of these short-lived, microscopic larvae will perish - eaten by other marine creatures or simply exhausting their energy reserves before encountering an electric ray. But enough of them will come into contact with an electric ray to continue the life cycle. When a cercaria comes into contact with a ray, it will discard its paddle-like tail, and burrow though the skin and into the blood vessels. It will then traverse the vast network of the fish's circulatory system until it finally settle within the heart's pulsating lumen, and start the cycle anew.

Because the asexual stage in the coquina clams allows E. zappum to continuously spam the water with waves of tiny baby flukes, this means it only takes a relatively small number infected clams for E. zappum to saturate the water with enough infective stages to maintain a viable population of the parasite in the ray hosts. Indeed, this was reflected in what the researchers found in this study - while the adult fluke was fairly common in the electric rays (fourteen of the fifty four rays the researchers examined were infected with adult E. zappum), infected beach clams were extremely rare - only SIX of 1174 clams that they examined at were infected.

On the beaches where these coquina clams and electric rays are found, each square metre of beach are densely packed with thousands of coquina clams. So looking for an infected clam amidst all that is like panning for gold - time-consuming and labour-intensive work which involves spending hours upon hours in front of a microscope with a bucket of shellfish. This is one of the reason why the full life cycle of so few of these flukes have been described.

Furthermore unlike most other digenean flukes that tend to infect mollusc (mostly snails) at their asexual stage - which narrows down the list of potential animals to examine, some fish blood flukes are known to infect some unusual invertebrates. While E. zappum is relatively conventional in that it still uses a mollusc for the asexual stage of its life cycle, there are some species which have really gone off the beaten evolutionary path and have evolved to infect polychaete worms.

Blood flukes have been reported from other species of rays in other parts of the world. Based on their DNA, the blood flukes that infect cartilaginous fish all belong to their own special evolutionary branch among the fish blood flukes, and that the common ancestor of all the living blood fluke lineages, including those that infect mammals and birds today, might have originated over 400 million years ago.

So long before there were dinosaurs, long before there were mammals, even before a lineage of fish began crawling onto land, and at around the same time as when the earliest iterations of sharks and ratfish were prowling the Silurian seas, the ancestors of these flukes were already going through their life cycles, and well-acquainted with the hearts of vertebrate animals.

Warren, M. B., & Bullard, S. A. (2019). First elucidation of a blood fluke (Electrovermis zappum n. gen., n. sp.) life cycle including a chondrichthyan or bivalve. International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife 10: 170-183.