"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 12, 2015

Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (revisited 1)

This is the third post in a series of blog posts written by students from my third year Evolutionary Parasitology unit (ZOOL329/529) class of 2015. This particular post was written by Aimee Diamond and it is on how the Monarch Butterfly can keep pesky parasite-induced blemishes at bay (you can read the previous post about a deadly parasite that causes rabbits to tilt their head like they are being animated by Shaft Studio here).
Photo by Derek Ramsey

The monarch butterfly, dubbed one of the most beautiful species of butterfly on the planet, has a beauty secret that helps reduce signs of pesky imperfections. BUT HOW, you may cry? You might see those ads for make-up and skincare products and they are always talking about visible pores, so how do you think butterflies feel about all these SPORES?

The imperfections I am talking about on these butterflies are caused by the protozoan parasites Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. These parasitic spores cover the surface of infected butterflies and get scattered onto the host plant - the milkweed - or onto the butterfly’s eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the caterpillar feeding off the contaminated milkweed plants end up ingesting these spores, which reside and mature in their gut.

The parasite then penetrate the intestinal wall and begin to clone multiple copies of themselves. They then undergo a sexual phase and form spores around the scales of the developing butterfly. And so, when the butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it is already infected.

Now, many studies have shown that virulence (how harmful a parasite is) is a parasite trait, and that its expression depends on the interactions between the genes of the host and the parasite. However, there is another factor that determine how virulent a parasite can be. It all comes down to host ecology; in this case, the species of milkweed that the monarch butterfly chooses for its host plant. There are over 100 species of milkweed, of which 27 are used by the monarch butterfly to lay their eggs for their little ones to feed on. What makes many species of milkweed relevant in determining O. elektroscirrha virulence is the fact that these plants contain toxic chemicals known as cardenolides which varies in quantity, depending on the milkweed species, but is used by the caterpillar in defense against predators, as well as parasites.

Photo by April M. King
In short, depending on which species of milkweed these butterflies land on, the amount of cardenolides that their caterpillar ingest can aid in defending them against those pesky parasite-induced imperfections.

A study was done to test how parasite virulence varies according to host ecology. For this, two milkweed species were used; Asclepias incarnata and Asclepias curassavica, and caterpillars were infected with cloned parasites and fed with either of the two milkweed species. These two species were chosen as they contain different amounts of cardenolides; A. curassavica has a much greater amount of these toxic chemicals than A. incarnata. If we put the pieces of the puzzle together, it can be assumed that the butterflies reared on A. incarnata will be more heavily infected with the parasite than those reared on A. curassavica.

And that was exactly the outcome of the study. The lower the chemical defense in the host plant species, the higher the parasite virulence in the caterpillar/butterfly. Host ecology, can sometimes drive parasite virulence more so than genetic traits and interactions between the host and parasite alone. The monarch butterfly can now have gorgeous spore-­free scales, as long as it chooses a milkweed species with greater chemical defense as their larval host plant.

The search for radiant, parasite-free exoskeleton is over. Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s cardenolides.

De Roode, J. C., Pedersen, A. B., Hunter, M. D., & Altizer, S. (2008). Host plant species affects virulence in monarch butterfly parasites. Journal of Animal Ecology, 77(1), 120-126.

This post was written by Aimee Diamond

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