"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

September 27, 2013

Special Report: #WAAVP2013 Part II (tongue-biters, eye flukes and parasites gone wild)

This is Part 2 of my report on the 24th International Conference of the World Association for the Advancement of Veterinary Parasitology (WAAVP 2013) I attended last month. If you had missed Part 1 of my report, you can read it here

photo credit: Don Ward
At the end of my previous post about WAAVP 2013, I was writing about a whole bunch of parasites from marine animals and I will start this post by continuing with that theme. During Tuesday afternoon, I attended a session on parasites of aquatic animals and the first talk was on parasitic isopods of fish by Nico Smit who happens to be a world-renowned expert on these parasite (he is the also the person who took that infamous photo of the tongue-biter parasite). It turns out that even though the tongue-biter has become a bit of an online celebrity, there is still very little is known about parasitic isopods in general. They seem to be found all over the world and they display different degrees of host specificity relating to latitude, with species in the tropical region being host specialist and those found in more temperature, high latitudinal region being less picky about their host than their tropical relatives.
photo credit:
Maria Sala-Bozano/University of Salford

One of the parasitic crustacean is the infamous tongue-biter, which was the subject of the next talk by Melissa Martin. Her study focused specifically on Cymothoa (the tongue-biter genus) in Australian waters. While most people are intrigued/horrified by their creepy mouth-dwelling antics, it turns out Cymothoa also have an interesting sex life.

The individual that act as the "prosthetic tongue" is always a female and she can produce hundreds of eggs in a brood sac on her belly. The sex of a newly arrived Cymothoa is actually dependent on whether the fish is already carrying another tongue-biter. If there is already a female sitting in the host fish's mouth, the new arrival turns into a male and mates with the female. If another juvenile Cymothoa comes along, the Johnny-come-lately will turn into a male, but he doesn't get in the way of the first male. Instead, he waits in line and if the original female dies, the first male will turn into a female and take her place on the fish's atrophied tongue

Later in the session on parasites of aquatic wildlife Katie O'Dwyer talked about her research was on a species of philophthalmid fluke. The species she is studying is in the same family as a eye fluke that we have previously featured on this blog and is also found in the Otago Harbour. But instead of infecting the mud snail (Zeacumantus subcarinatus) which are abundant on the mudflats of Otago Harbour, this species infects two species of perwinkles - the Banded Periwinkle (Austrolittorina antipodum) and the Brown Periwinkle (Austrolittorina cincta) found on the rocky shores of New Zealand.
Left: Philophthalmid rediae in snail
Right: Philophthalmid larva encysted on a Petri dish
Just like other philophthalmid eye flukes, the species O'Dwyer is looking at also releases free-living larvae that encyst in the environment (see photo on the left). But this one also has an alternate strategy for transmission - encysting in the snail itself and waiting for the snail to be eaten. Her research involves looking at what might be triggering the switch in strategy - so far, the results indicate that it is a combination of environmental and host factors.

During the day, I checked out some posters on thorny-head worms of marlin, trematodes in wrasses of the Great Barrier Reef, worms in dingoes, blood parasites in gobies and coccidians in small mammals. A poster that really caught my attention was one by Amanda Worth, questioning whether the interpretation of altered behaviour in rodents infected with Toxoplasma gondii has simply been a story which has been overblown due to its appeal. It questions whether the role that cats play in the life cycle of T. gondii has been over emphasized seeing as the parasite is capable of being transmitted between hosts just fine without a cat being involved. There's no denying that T. gondii can indeed alter rodent behaviour, but whether it is actually adaptive for the parasite to do so or if it is simply a side effect of the infection pathology should be reevaluated. While T. gondii is often cited as a classic example of parasite host behavioural manipulation, is it because the evidence supporting such an interpretation are really compelling or if it is simply a story that has all the elements that makes it an appealing to us (C'mon, cats AND mind-controlling/zombifying parasites)?

Photo credit: Stefan Kraft
On the last day of the conference, I attended a session on tick borne infections which ended up being really well-attended. There was certainly plenty of tick talks at WAAVP 2013, one of which was from Peter Irwin who was looking at the tick fauna of Australia for potential tick-borne diseases that can infect humans (turns out there are not all that many in Australia - yet) and the possibility of using dogs as sentinels for the presence of Lyme disease in Australia. As a follow-up from all the tick talks, the wildlife parasitology session featured a presentation by Andrea Paparini on tick-borne piroplasm parasites in the platypus. The study Paparini talked about set out to sequence piroplasm parasites from evolutionary unique hosts (such as the duck-billed platypus) to try and sort out the evolutionary relationship within this group of parasite. Apparently piroplasm is very commonly in the platypus (sometimes in conjunction with trypanosome parasites) and they don't seem to cause visible signs of disease to their host.

For a change of pace, Linda Ly presented research on parabasalid flagellates from some Australian termites. Those flagellates are not quite parasites and might actually be mutualists, but they are still very interesting. In a single termite species she was able to identify at least ten brand-new morphotypes of flagellates and considering there are 260 species of native Australian termites in total, those ten are just the tip of the diversity iceberg for termite gut flagellates. This was followed by a talk from Edward Green about some of the morphological features of the springbok louse Linognathus euchorse and the session ended with Mary Shuttleworth presenting her research on the hidden genetic diversity and structure of Cloacina - a genus of parasitic nematode found in swamp wallabies.

While the majority of the talks were on veterinary parasitology, which as I mentioned in my previous post was not really my scene, there were plenty at the conference which held my interest the entire time. This post is only a very small and selective sampling of a fairly well-attended international conference. We will be back with the usual parasite posts next month - I already have a few papers lined up to write about so watch this space!

1 comment:

  1. An interesting talk, which also reported precocious behaviour of parasites was that of Doug Colwell, of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, on the first day of the conference. This time rather than ‘precociously encysting’ the parasite was ‘precociously excysting’. The parasite in question was Dicrocoelium dendriticum, a liver fluke which appears to have low host specificity at every stage of it’s complex life cycle. For instance the first intermediate, terrestrial snail host can be any of >10 species. The second intermediate hosts are ants and it is at this stage that Doug Colwell and colleagues have observed ‘precocious excystment’ in 4-8% of ants studied. Within ants, however, there seems to be few individual metacercarial cysts excysting. A number of factors may play a role in this change in the parasites life history, including temperature, cyst age and stress. In this study ‘precocious excystment’ correlated positively with low temperatures. Due to the low occurrence of ‘precocious excystment’ and the observation that few individuals adopt this strategy it does not suggest that excysting is adaptive. Still, those parasites, which have excysted will likely have an advantage upon entering the definitive host, as they do not have the delay of excysting post entry. Doug Colwell promised several future studies aimed at shedding light on the observed change in this parasites life history, so watch this space!