"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 2, 2013

Urogasilus brasiliensis

While most people who have some passing familiarity with copepods would know them as tiny zooplankton crustaceans, a large number of them are actually parasitic. In fact, about a third of all known species of copepods are parasites and with about 13000 known species of copepods in total, that is a lot of parasitic species. These parasitic copepods infect a wide variety of aquatic animals and come in all kinds of weird shapes.
Photo composed from Fig 4 and Fig 5 of the paper

Naturally, many of them are fish parasites as fish are such an abundant and diverse group of aquatic animals. But while most parasitic copepods of fish usually infect the skin or gills of their host, today's parasite stands out from the crowd as it inhabits the fish's urinary bladder and is the first parasitic copepod ever known to live in that organ.

Now that is not to say that a fish's bladder is a parasite-free zone - far from it. You wouldn't think that an organ that gets periodically filled up with urine and metabolic waste would be prime real estate, but there are all kinds of parasites that call it home ranging from single-cell eukaryotic parasites, to myxozoans, parasitic flatworms like monogeneans and digenean flukes - some of them are even found exclusively in the urinary bladder. However it is an unusual habitat for a parasitic copepod seeing how, as mentioned above, most live on the fish's skin or gills

Today's featured parasite, Urogasilus brasiliensis, is a newly described species that has been found in some freshwater fish living in the Cristalino River, a tributary of the Araguaia River in Brazil. The known hosts to this parasite include the tiger fish and two species of peacock bass. Much like other parasites that infect many different species of hosts, some hosts are just better than others and that is the case for U. brasiliensis too. This copepod tends be more common in the tiger fish and grows to a larger size in that host, indicating that it is possibly a better host for the parasite than the peacock bass. But while U. brasilensis is not particularly picky about what species of fish it infects, it is picky about where it lives within that fish - it is always found in the bladder.

Living in the urinary bladder does present some physiological challenges - as mentioned above, it is an organ that regularly alternates between being empty and being full of urine. Such periodic shifts in the concentration of fluid surrounding U. brasiliensis would cause severe osmotic stress like those experienced by animals that regularly migrate between freshwater and marine habitats. Presumably U. brasiliensis has overcome this particular obstacle and in doing so has been able to colonise an otherwise fairly vacant niche not occupied by other parasitic copepods.

Urogasilus brasiliensis is one of the few parasitic copepod that has evolved into an endoparasite (internal parasite) as opposed to being an ectoparasite (external parasite). But it is not alone - a few other species of copepods have also evolved to conquer that frontier, some of which we have featured on this blog such as one that lives in the cephalic canal of fish in Australia and another species lives in the rectum of rockfish.

Rosim DF, Boxshall GA, Ceccarelli PS. (2013) A novel microhabitat for parasitic copepods: A new genus of Ergasilidae (Copepoda: Cyclopoida) from the urinary bladder of a freshwater fish. Parasitology International 62: 347-354

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