"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

August 7, 2012

Mysidobdella californiensis

Photo taken from Figure 3 of the paper
Marine leeches are commonly known to feed on various vertebrate hosts - mainly fish and sea turtles. However, today's parasite stands out from the pack by associating itself with an arthropod. Instead of fish or turtles, Mysidobdella californiensis sticks its sucker onto mysid shrimps. Mysids are also known as opossum shrimps because the females have a little brood pouch (called a marsupium) in which they carry developing young.

The discovery of Mysidobdella californiensis actually occurred rather serendipitously. Back in the summer and fall of 2010, an unprecedentedly huge swarm of mysid shrimp appeared off the central Californian coast. Some of those shrimps got sucked into the water clarification system at the Bodega Marine Laboratory. With all this shrimp in the system, the lab staff began collecting them opportunistically for fish food. But then, they started noticing these little leeches attached to the shrimps, so they made a concerted effort to collect the shrimps directly from the water clarifier, and examine them under the microscope.

What they found were tiny leeches about 1.5 cm (a bit above half an inch) long. Approximately one in every six shrimp were found to have leeches on them, and each infected shrimp was carrying between one to three leeches. Seeing as this is a new species, at this stage very little is known about its biology except what can be inferred based on what we know of a related species - M. borealis - which has been studied in slightly more details. It is unclear whether M. californiensis (and related species) merely hitch-hike on the shrimp and use it to carry them to potential hosts, or if they in fact feed on the shrimp. In laboratory trials on M. borealis, the leeches refused to feed on any of the fishes that they were presented with, and none of the leeches were found to have fish blood cells in their gut. It is possible that Mysidobdella as a genus specialise in feeding on mysid shrimps. If that is indeed the case, then Mysidobdella would be the only marine leech known to feed on the blood of invertebrates rather than vertebrates. However, mysid blood has yet to be found in the gut of these leeches, so at least at this point, the diet of M. californiensis remains a mystery.

Burreson, E.M., Kim, B. and Passarelli, J.K. (2012) A New Species of Mysidobdella (Hirudinida: Piscicolidae) from Mysids along the California Coast. Journal of Parasitology 98: 341-343.

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