"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 25, 2015

Allodero hylae

Half of all known segmented worms are oligochaetes, and the most well-known example is an earthworm. But aside from the earthworms that might be crawling under your garden, there are a wide variety of oligochaete species living in all kinds of environments, including freshwater habitats, seashore, sewage, and even glacial ice. Considering the range of environments they inhabit, it is a bit surprising that so few oligochaetes have evolved to be internal parasites.

From Figure 2 of the paper
There are only two known genera of endoparasitic oligochaetes - Chaetogaster which lives as internal parasite/symbionts of freshwater molluscs such as snails and mussels, and Dero which lives in frogs and toads, and they both belong to the family Naididae. The species featured today is Allodero (a subgenus of Dero) hylae - it lives out its life in the ureter of the Cuban tree frog Osteropilus septentionalis. Wild frogs can have more than 40 worms in the ureters, which can become dilated due to the parasite load.

The study we are featuring today investigated how these worms get from one frog to another. The researchers knew that the larval worms are pass (or pissed) into the environment via the frog's urine, but they wanted to test whether A. hylae which had been freshly expelled with frog pee can actively infect another frog, and what happens to the worms that don't end up in a frog.

First, they exposed five different species of frog and toads to some A. hylae larvae from a "donor" frog. They observed that A. hylae infect their hosts by swimming up their cloaca, but they are rather picky about whose cloaca they went up. Out of the five species of potential hosts, only the tree frogs ended up being infected. But this is not an entirely one-sided interaction - the researchers also noted that potential hosts can turn the tables on the worms by eating them before they have a chance to swim up their cloaca. If A. hylae enters a frog through its mouth instead of its cloaca, they will simply get digested.

Next they test if an uninfected frog can become infected in the presence of an infected one, and they did so by placing an uninfected frog with a frog carrying A. hylae in either a plastic container or a water-filled bromeliad (for a more naturalistic setting). For good measure, they simulate a predation event on the infected frog to ensure that some worms are expelled. In less technical terms, they scared the piss (and worms) out of an infected frog.

Photo of Allodero lutzi, a related species from southern Brazil
Photo from from Figure 1 of this paper
Sharing a room with a infected room mate is one thing, but to share a room with one that had just pissed themselves and there are parasites in their pee that wants to crawl up your cloaca is probably a bit much (even for reality TV these days). Between 60-73 percent of the tree frogs sharing a container or bromeliad with an infected room mate did end up getting worms in their ureters, showing that fresh pee from an infected frog can be a source of new infection.

Since A. hylae needs to actively seek out a host in the environment, when these worms are born, they start out well-equipped for a life swimming in the water. They have bristles (setae) on their back, well-developed gills, and a fully functional digestive tract - all necessary for making it as a free-living organisms. But once they get in a frog, within 72 hours they undergo a transformation whereby they lose all the those features and become more equipped for a life as a parasite inside a frog's ureters.

But what happens to the worms that do not end up in a frog? For most parasites, not finding a host means death. But it seems that once a larval A. hylae has been away from a frog for long enough, they don't look back. The researchers found that while worms that have been out of a frog for less than a week are attracted to frog BO, those that have been out over two weeks lose their attraction. In addition to being disinterested in frog BO, these older worms retain their bristles, gills, and fully functional digestive tract for good. Unlike their parasitic cousins who have lost all such features once they found a nice frog to settle into, these worms have become used to the outside world and are content to spend their life swimming in the water and foraging for microbes.

Animals like A. hylae, which have not evolved to be fully commit to a parasitic lifestyle, can give insight into how internal parasites have evolved from ancestors that were initially free-living organisms. Depending on its circumstances, A. hylae will end up either living in the ureters of a frog, or out hunting microbes in the water. Allodero hylae doesn't always chose the outside life, sometimes the outside life choses it

Andrews, J. M., Childress, J. N., Iakovidis, T. J., & Langford, G. J. (2015). Elucidating the Life History and Ecological Aspects of Allodero hylae (Annelida: Clitellata: Naididae), A Parasitic Oligochaete of Invasive Cuban Tree Frogs in Florida. Journal of Parasitology 101: 275-281.

September 6, 2015

Chordodes formosanus

For most insects (and other small animals), the praying mantis is a creature out of their worst nightmare; a deadly predator with giant compound eyes, a nasty set of high-speed spiky grasping limbs, and an appetite to boot. But Chordodes formosanus is a parasite that would give mantis nightmares - it is a hairworm - and regular readers of this blog will know immediately why that is justified.
From Fig. 2 of this paper
The worm starts out as a microscopic larva hidden inside the body of small insects - the mantis' usual prey - but once it is ingested by a mantis, it can then grow to several centimetres long inside its abdomen. By the time it is ready to bid farewell to its reluctant host, which comes when it reaches sexual maturity, the worm has already taken up most of the space within the mantis, leaving it a half-empty husk. The modus operandi of a horsehair worm is to then get into the water, which involves the host taking a dunk - whether it wants to or not. Apart from commandeering the mantis to go for a terminal end to their relationship, during the worm's development, it takes a massive toll. After all, one does not simply host a giant worm inside one's abdomen without any consequences.

But the said consequences is not equally distributed within the mantis population - this hairworm seems to affect male mantis more severely - especially in regards to their reproductive capacity. In a nutshell - C. formosanus shrink their testes and in some cases, they disappear altogether. However, this parasite seems more forgiving when it comes to female mantis; infected female mantis can harbour the worm and still retain intact reproductive organs. Not to say it doesn't exact a toll, just that the female mantis can still have some babies before her end comes. So why this sex bias? The reason lies in how this parasite alters the host's physiology.

When researchers looked at various aspects of the infected mantis' physical appearance, they also noticed some external changes in both sexes - they had comparatively shorter walking legs, smaller wings, and altered antennae - but it was more pronounced in the infected male mantis. Overall, the infected individuals have an appearance which bears closer resemblance to that of late-stage juvenile rather than adults. This suggest that C. formosanus might be tempering with the mantis' so-called "juvenile hormones" which control development in insects. But why is it that only the male mantis lose their reproductive organs? At this point, it is not entirely clear, but it might have something to do with the different role played said hormones in the development of each sex.

So why has C. formosanus evolved to castrate their male mantis host? From the parasite's perspective, host castration is a very effective strategy - the host does not need its gonad to survive, only to reproduce. So by tapping into this energy source, the parasite can keep the host alive while maximising the amount of resources it draws from the host.

For that, the host pays a double cost in terms of evolutionary fitness. Usually with such parasite infection which inevitably results in the host's death, the best thing for the host to do to make the best of a bad situation and reproduce as much as possible before they are eventually killed by the parasite. But in this case, the male mantis doesn't even get to do that - thanks to C. formosanus, long before it bid farewell to life, it has to bid farewell to its junk as well

Chiu, M. C., Huang, C. G., Wu, W. J., & Shiao, S. F. (2015). Morphological allometry and intersexuality in horsehair-worm-infected mantids, Hierodula formosana (Mantodea: Mantidae). Parasitology 142: 1130-1142