"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

March 26, 2014

Octopicola superba

When it comes to reproduction, most living things can be classified along a scale. At one end, you have the r-strategists (many insects and molluscs) that produce a prodigious number of offspring but few survive to adulthood. And on the other end are the K-strategists that produces only a few progeny, but to invest a lot of resources into each to ensure they are more likely to reach maturity (for example, elephants, humans, etc).

SEM photo of female
Octopicola superba from here
There is a cost/benefit trade-off inherent with being on either side of the scale because as a r-strategist, you might be producing a lot of progeny, but most of them will probably die before they get to reproduce themselves. While on the K-strategist end, by investing so much resources into each individual young, you can only afford to produce a few of them. The reproductive strategy of different organisms all fall somewhere along that continuum between low quality mass production or high quality but infrequent output, and different circumstances call for different strategies.

Textbook often use parasites as key examples of r-strategists, as a model of organisms that producing prodigious number of offspring. Indeed some internal parasites are well-known for their reproductive capacity - for example, the female blood fluke Schistosoma mansoni produces 300 to 3000 eggs per day, while tapeworms like Diphyllobothrium dendriticum can produce tens of millions of eggs per day. But not all parasites opt for quantity over quality.

The study we are featuring today examined the reproductive capacity of the parasitic copepod Octopicola superba, which, as its name indicates, lives in the common octopus. As far as a parasite goes, this crustacean seems rather innocuous and does not really cause much harm to its host. Octopicola superba can be found all over the body of the octopus but most of them are located on the skin and gills. Even though it is a parasite, it has a reproductive strategy which brings it closer to being a K-strategist.

Each female O. superba produces a clutch of only a few dozen eggs per season; if a female was to produce more than about forty eggs in a clutch, she starts reaching the upper limit of her reproductive capacity and the size of each egg (which reflects how much resources is invested into it) begins to shrunk as the brood imposes too much of a drain. This reproductive capacity varies considerably between individual; the most productive copepods are able to produce over twice as many eggs as the least productive ones, while some produced eggs that were almost twice as big as those produced by others.

Octopicola superba's reproductive strategy also shifts during different seasons; in winter, they produced a larger clutch of smaller eggs, whereas in summer they produce a smaller clutch of bigger eggs. Such season shifts has been observed in other parasitic copepods, though for O. superba, the reason for them doing so remains unknown. Despite these seasonal and individual differences, overall O. superba is certainly low-key when it comes to reproduction - even the most fecund female had just above sixty eggs in a clutch and the rest mostly produced between thirty to forty eggs.

So why has this parasitic copepod evolved to produce so few eggs compared with parasites like tapeworms and blood flukes that pump out thousands or even millions of eggs on a daily basis? It might have something to do with the habits of its host.

Octopus tend to be territorial homebodies that likes to stay in their little corner of the sea. Previous analyses indicate that hosts with such sedentary habits tend to select for parasitic copepods that produce larger eggs. Unlike one infecting more mobile animal (like a fish), parasites of sedentary animals cannot rely upon their host's routine daily movement to bring them into contact with new hosts. Therefore, they must do so under their own steam. By investing more into each egg, the female O.superba ensures each of her babies are better equipped for the long journey to find a new home, even if it means she can only produce just a few dozen of them at a time.

With offspring, you can only invest so much into them - at some point, they are on their own

Cavaleiro, F. I., & Santos, M. J. (2014). Egg number-egg size: an important trade-off in parasite life history strategies. International Journal for Parasitology 44:173-182

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