"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

October 23, 2015

Goussia ameliae

The fate of parasites are often inextricably linked to that of their hosts, and when there are changes in the host population, the effects cascade onto their parasites. The study featured today is focused on Goussia amelia - it is a newly described single-cell protozoan parasite which infects alewives and is known to cause erosion in the intestinal wall of their fish host.
Image modified from Figure 2 and 3 of the paper
Alewife is a species of herring native to the east coast of North America. They are anadromous fish that live in the coastal marine environments as adults, but enter freshwater streams to breed, much like salmon. Sometimes populations of alewives become trapped in lakes for one reason or the other during their migratory journey. These isolated fish eventually become adapted to the freshwater environment and evolved on divergent paths to their anadromous relatives. This is a relatively common occurrence which has happened multiple time in the last few thousand years, and it is also the origin for the population of alewives found in Lake Hopatcong. This lake was originally connected via a canal to the Delaware River and alewives from the coast of New Jersey used to migrate to Lake Hopatcong to spawn. But during the start of the 1900s the canal was blocked off, and the alewives that were in the lake at the time became isolated from their relatives on the New Jersey coast.

So how did this affect parasites like G. ameliae? A pair of scientists compared G. ameliae found in alewives from Lake Hopatcong to those found in the anadromous alewives from Maurice River and noted some key differences in the two forms. For example, G. ameliae from anadromous alewives have oocysts (the infective stage of the parasite) which are comparatively shorter and wider than those from landlocked hosts.

They also have different trends in their prevalence and distribution; adult anadromous alewives are more commonly and heavily infected with G. ameliae than young fish, possibly because adult fish become stressed while migrating upstream and dealing with changing salinity levels as they move from the marine environment to a freshwater one, making them more susceptible to parasitic infections. In contrast, G. amelia was very common in younger landlocked alewives, infecting over ninety percent of young fish, but it was only found in about a third of the adult fish, which may indicate that the landlocked alewives can acquire resistance to the parasite as they mature.

Given those differences, are the anadromous and landlocked G. amelia actually different species? The scientists compared the DNA of G. ameliae from the anadromous and landlocked hosts, focusing on the 18S RNA gene which can function like a barcode for distinguish different species of parasites. They found that despite the two form having slightly different morphology and ecology, it was not enough to make them separate species - their 18S RNA gene sequences were identical. But given their differences, much like their hosts, those separate populations might be in the process of diverging into two different species - it is just a matter of time.

Lovy, J., & Friend, S. E. (2015). Intestinal coccidiosis of anadromous and landlocked alewives, Alosa pseudoharengus, caused by Goussia ameliae n. sp. and G. alosii n. sp.(Apicomplexa: Eimeriidae). International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife, 4: 159-170.

October 7, 2015

Marsupiobdella africana

Leeches are not endearing animals and many are literal blood-suckers. As a result they often evoke a sense of disgust in most people, and the term "leech" is usually used in a derogatory way. But most people might not realise that leeches also has a warm, maternal side too, one which is amply demonstrated in the kangaroo leech, Marsupiobdella africana. But this leech does not parasitise the kangaroo - indeed, in southern Africa where M. africanus is found there are no kangaroos - the reason it has that name actually has more to do with how it reproduces

Left: A pair of mating leech.                                   Right: Leeches riding on the legs of  a crab      (from Fig. 1 of the paper)
Marsupiobdella africana makes a living sucking blood from Xenopus laevis - the African clawed frog which is commonly used as a laboratory model for developmental biology research. When it reach sexual maturity, the leech detaches from its frog host to find a suitable mate. Some do so by simply crawling around in the environment, but they are also known to hitch-hike on the legs on crabs as if they some kind of crustacean-based Uber, admittedly an armoured, multi-legged one.

Top: Leech with spermatophore attached
Middle: Leech with filled brood pouch
Bottom: Young leeches emerging
from brood pouch
From Fig. 2 of the paper
These leech are hermaphrodites, and each individual take turns being the sperm depositor and the recipient. Mating between kangaroo leech is a very different affair to how you might imagine it, and from our perspective it is not very romantic. Instead of bringing their respective genitalia together, the leech playing the sperm depositor role actually pulls out a spermatophore - which is something like a biological hypodermic syringe filled with sperm - and stabs it into the recipient, which may end up being tagged with one to three of those sperm packets.

If the prospect of being harpooned with a sperm-filled syringe is not daunting enough, the recipient also make a habit of collecting a bunch of spermatophores from a number of different depositors, probably to ensure they can have the cream of the crop (so to speak). Once the spermatophore has made its mark, the sperm it carries are able to make their own way to the egg, no matter where the spermatophore may have initially landed on the leech's body. At this point it is not entirely clear how they accomplish this.

Once the eggs are fertilised, the sperm recipient, now playing the role of mother leech, transfer the eggs (which can be as many as 50) to a brood pouch in her belly (which is where the name kangaroo leech came from). There they will be protected and nurtured. Once the eggs hatch, the baby leeches continue to receive nutrient from their mother through her body wall and into their posterior suckers. Those developing leeches will stay in the pouch for four weeks. As a final send-off, the mother leech will find an unsuspecting clawed frog, and the young leeches are "released explosively" over the surface of the frog, thus ensuring that those blood-suckers will get the best possible start to their own lives.

Marsupiobdella africana - a loving and nurturing blood-sucker which wants nothing but the best for its babies (see also another blood sucker which goes to great lengths to care for its brood here).

Kruger, N., & Du Preez, L. (2015). Reproductive strategies of the kangaroo leech, Marsupiobdella africana (Glossiphoniidae). International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife 4: 142-147.