"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 24, 2013

Tracheliastes polycolpus

Photo of adult T. polycolpus from here
Tracheliastes polycolpus is a parasitic copepod that lives on freshwater fish and does so by attaching to the fins of its host, grazing on mucus and epithelial cells. While T. polycolpus can infect a handful of different freshwater fishes, it is primarily found on the beaked dace (Leuciscus burdigalensis). When they occur in large numbers, their feeding activities can severely erode the fins of their hosts, so much that in some fish the fins are gnawed down to mere nubs (see the photo below of a heavily parasitised dace, with outlines showing the missing fin tissue).

So when it gets crowded on this parasite's usual, preferred host, some T. polycolpus find a home elsewhere and start parasitising other species of fish living in the same area. Even though T. polycolpus is considered to be a host generalist and can infect multiple species of fish, not all fish are considered equally habitable for this parasite and it does have a predilection for certain species over others. So what determines which other fish end up acquiring these parasitic copepods?

A group of scientists from France conducted a study looking at T. polycolpus population on freshwater fish in two French rivers, focusing on the 10 most abundant fish species in those rivers. Of the fish that they examined, eight of them were cyprinids (the family of fish that include dace, roach, and carp) while the two remaining species were the stone loach and brown trout.
Photo of parasitised dace with missing fin tissue from this paper

Only cyrpinids were found to be infected with T. polycolpus and of those only four species (dace, nase, gudgeon, minnows) were found to be consistently infected across both study sites. It turns out that next to the beaked dace, the second most preferred host for T. polycolpus is Parachondrostoma toxostoma, also known as South-west European Nase. After the beaked dace, it was the most commonly infected fish, especially in the Viaur river where there was generally higher abundance of the parasite.

It just so happens that out of all the fishes in those rivers, the nase is most similar to the dace in terms of its general body size, feeding style and habitat, making it the ideal second choice for T. polycolpus. On the flip side, it seems that minnow is the worst host for T. polycolpus - it hosted the least parasites out of the four fish species that were found with T. polycolpus and the parasites that were found on minnows were smaller and produced less eggs than those found on the other fish species. This is probably due to the minnow being a smaller fish than the beaked dace or the nase, so it does not produce as much mucus for T. polycolpus to graze on.

So even when generalist parasites do infect other hosts, they prefer some familiarity. The more similar you are (physiologically and/or ecologically) to the parasite's preferred host, the more likely that you will be next in line to get infected should the parasite's preferred host become too heavily parasitised.

But here's an added to layer to this story which you might want to consider - the South-west European nase is actually listed as a vulnerable species - its population has declined by at least 30% in the past 10 years due to habitat destruction and hybridisation with introduced species, so if the number of nase continues to decline, what does this mean for T. polycolpus? Would this result in increased parasite pressure on other fish species as they find themselves soaking up the "excess" T. polycolpus? Or will the the beaked dace experience even more exacerbated pathology as T. polycolpus are left with less alternative hosts to infect?

Lootvoet, A., Blanchet, S., Gevrey, M., Buisson, L., Tudesque, L., & Loot, G. (2013). Patterns and processes of alternative host use in a generalist parasite: insights from a natural host–parasite interaction. Functional Ecology 27: 1403-1414

November 12, 2013

Ophiocordyceps sessilis

There are many species of fungi that infect insects and some of the most well-known species are the ones that infect ants, better known to most as the "zombie ant fungus". We have previously featured one such fungus and its ant-jacking antics on this blog. But while most people might think that there's just a single zombie ant fungus out there which is responsible for creating this intriguing wonder (or nightmare) of nature, there are actually many different species of such fungi and they are found all over the world infecting various different insects. In the Ophiocordyceps genus alone there are over a hundred species and there might be some undescribed fungi that are hiding in plain sight because they have been misidentified and misclassified as a previously known species.
Photo of Ophiocordyceps sessilis from
Fig. 1 of the paper

Today, we are going to be featuring one such fungus and it hails from Japan where they are called Kobugata-aritake which means the "bump-neck ant fungus". The fungi specimen described in the paper we are discussing today were originally collected in 2006 from a forest near the village of Iitate, Fukushima. They were initially thought to be specimen of a fairly commonly found species call Ophiocordyceps pulvinata, but upon reexamination, researchers noticed a number of key differences which separated O. sessilis from O. pulvinata.

Both fungi were found sprouting from dead ants which had their mandibles clamped tightly around a branch in the typical "zombie ant" pose, but whereas O. pulvinata produce a bulbous fruiting body that sprouts from the back of the ant's head (see photo on lower left), ants infected with O sessilis are covered in spiny fruiting bodies jutting out all over the ant's body (see photo on upper right).

Further difference between the two fungi can be seen under the microscope; O. pulvinata produce discrete spores that are long and slim, but the spores of O. sessilis look like beads on a necklace which readily breaks apart into small "part-spores". These part-spores of O. sessilis can also germinate on malt-extract agar plates within two days, growing into soft, velvety colonies of fungal mass, whereas O. pulvinata spores failed to grow on such artificial medium. Finally, comparisons of sequences from selected genetic markers revealed that O. sessilis is clearly a very different species to O. pulvinata.

Photo of Ophiocordyceps pulvinata from
Fig. 1 of the paper
A peculiar thing the researchers noticed is that O. sessilis is only ever found in ants that are also infected with O. pulvinata. They suggested that O. sessilis is actually a parasite of O. pulvinata itself and noted other Ophiocordyceps species are often found in pairs, so what had previously be considered as coinfections may in fact be a case of hyperparasitism (whereby a parasite is itself infected by a parasite).

However, there is another possibility that the researchers did not mention in their paper, which was that O. sessilis needs O. pulvinata to pave the way in order for them to colonise the ant's body. An example of this is can be found among fluke-snail host-parasite systems. Like most digenean trematodes, the blood fluke Austrobilharzia terrigalensis they needs to infect a snail for the asexual part of its life cycle, but unlike those other species, A. terrigalensis cannot infect a snail on its own and is always found in snails that are already infected with another species of fluke. The coinfecting species always appear shriveled and emaciated in the presence of A. terrigalensis and it has been suggested that while A. terrigalensis lacks the ability to subvert or suppress the immune defences of snails, they are capable of colonising a snail once its defences have been knocked out by another species, at which point they barge in, overpower the resident parasite and take over the host.

So either O. sessillis is a hyperparasite (or a "mycoparasite" - a parasite of a fungus) of O. pulvinata, or it cannot colonise a host on its own and instead piggybacks on O. pulvinata, eventually usurping it and taking over the ant for its own. Either way, it appears that O. sessilis is a fungus that can hijack a fungus which is used to hijacking ants.

Kaitsu, Y., Shimizu, K., Tanaka, E., Shimano, S., Uchiyama, S., Tanaka, C., & Kinjo, N. (2013). Ophiocordyceps sessilis sp. nov., a new species of Ophiocordyceps on Camponotus ants in Japan. Mycological Progress 12: 755-761.

P.S. I recently wrote an article for The Conversation about parasites that can survive freezing - including the hairworm (otherwise known as the parasite that gives crickets nightmares). To read it, just follow this link here.