"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

June 18, 2022

Sarcotaces izawai

Parasitic copepods are a weird bunch, and many of them look nothing like what most people would recognise as a crustacean. But even among those weirdos, Sarcotaces stands out, because during the course of its evolution, it has turned into a big teardrop-shaped blob living inside a fish's body.

Top left: Staining of the fish body due to Sarcotaces, Top right: Sarcotaces extracted from fish flesh
Left: A Female Sarcotaces specimen (about 4 cm in length)
Photos from Fig. 1 and Graphical Abstract of the paper.

There are seven known species of Sarcotaces, all of which are parasites that dwell in fleshy galls embedded in the muscles of fish. The female of the species can grow up to about 5 cm long. They belong to a family of copepods called Philichthyidae which all specialise in living within nooks and crannies of a fish's body, including their skull, sensory canals, or inside galls just beneath the fish's skin. The study featured in this blog post described a newly discovered species of Sarcotaces - Sarcotaces izawai.

Specimens of S. izawai were retrieved from a consignment of frozen fish which were originally destined for the fish market, but were redirected to researchers when the County Veterinary Inspector of Szczecin noticed signs of infection in some of the fish. In total, 29 fish were taken to the University of Szczecin for further examination. Nine of those fish were found to harbour the gall of Sarcotaces - where there was once fish muscle had been turned into a black void, a dark fleshy cavern where the female Sarcotaces resided alongside her tiny males and microscopic larvae.

The black liquid associated with this copepod is what gave Sarcotaces its German name - "Tintenbeutel" which means "ink bag", and why in parts of Australia, they're called "Iodine Worms". Even in the other fish where no Sarcotaces were found, the fish's flesh were tainted with an ink-stained void, which most likely meant a Sarcotaces had once lived there, but was inadvertently removed when the fish were being processed. While the presence of this parasite does not pose any health hazards to any would-be consumers, the inky stain in the fish's flesh do render them off-putting to any would-be buyers on the market. But, because of this, the researchers were given an opportunity to conduct detailed scanning electron microscopy on the copepod, and provided the first DNA barcode for this unique genus of parasite based on its COI gene.

While the female S. izawai is very distinct and noticeable, the male is rather inconspicuous - they grow to about 3 mm in length, and are comparatively tiny and fairly nondescript. In comparison, the female is shaped like a knobbly radish, and grows to 2.5 to 5 cm in length or 10-20 times the length of the male. This size difference is comparable to that of a human and a sperm whale. It also means that a single female could be accompanied by multiple males. Indeed, the researchers found one female who was accompanied by 18 suitors in her flesh gall.

While very little is known about how the microscopic, free-swimming larvae of Sarcotaces gets into a fish in the first place,  it seems that the growth and development of the female Sarcotaces takes place entirely within the sac-like gall. This flesh bag has a tiny opening to the outside world that the copepod usually keeps plugged using the pointy tip of her body, and unplugs to release larvae into the surrounding waters. Because of this, the researchers consider Sarcotaces as a "mesoparasite", because while they largely live within the fish's body, they still maintain some contact with the outside world with the tip of the body plugging up that hole.

As an added layer to that study, the consignment of frozen fish that the researchers examined have been been frozen and thawed multiple times, and were "pan-dressed" - in that their head, fins, and the guts have been taken out - this might be why some of the fish had the characteristic inky stain of Sarcotaces even though the parasite was absent. This made the identification of those fish rather difficult simply through visual inspection. While the consignment of fish were labelled as Pseudophycis bachus - red codling - from "The Falklands", the researchers found this to be a case of seafood identity fraud.

When they did some DNA analyses they found that the fish were actually Mora moro - a species of deep sea cod which is found in temperate seas across many parts of the world, but has not been recorded from the Falklands. It is likely that the fish wholesalers were trying to use the mislabelling to bypass regional quotas or conceal catches from restricted waters.

This type of seafood mislabelling is very common around the world, and presents problems for consumer protection, food safety and supply, fisheries regulations, and conservation. In this case, not only did the ink-stained fillets of these Sarcotaces-infected fish provide scientists with an opportunity to examine a poorly-understood parasite, the presence of this tubby copepod also helped draw attention to a case of seafood identity fraud.

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