"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

July 27, 2017

Myriophora alexandrae

Millipedes are known for secreting some really noxious chemicals to ward off its enemies. So much so that other animals are also known to co-opt the millipede's chemical cocktails for their own use.
For example lemurs and capuchin monkeys are known to smear millipede juice on themselves as a mosquito repellent. But there is no perfect defence and the millipede have some adversaries that are not deterred by its defensive secretion, some of which are phorid flies in the Myriophora genus - which are specialised millipede hunters.

a) Myriophora alexandrae laying an egg at the base of a millipede's antenna, (b) Myriophora communis (insert: ovipositor),
c) Millipede excreting defensive fluid while a Myriophora harwoodi feeds on it, (d) Myriophora maggot and dead host
Photos from Fig. 2 of this paper
Phoridae is a family of flies also known as "scuttle flies" - they are mostly parasitoids and there are thousands of species found all over the world. Some species are well-known for their ant-decapitation trick. Despite being rather common, very little is known about most of these parasitoids - this is possibly because of the daunting number of species, their small size, and general lack of research interest beyond a handful of species which either have potential as a mean of biological control, or are pest of cultivated insects like bees.

With so many different species of phorids out there, perhaps it is not surprising that they have evolved to target a wide range of terrestrial invertebrates - and some of them specialised in hunting millipedes, undeterred by their chemical defences. So how do Myriophora flies track down their millipede hosts? To find out, a group of researchers conducted a series of experiments at a research station in Costa Rica to determine what it is about millipedes that these flies find so attractive. They wanted to figure out whether it is the defensive juices secreted by the millipedes or the sight of the millipedes themselves. So they collected some millipedes, kept them for a few days to ensure they're parasitoid free to start with, and used them to set up an experiment in luring phorid flies.

They end up presenting the flies with the following: (1) millipede juice dabbed on pieces of paper (which they obtain by lightly zapping the millipedes), (2) dead millipede smeared in millipede juice, and (3) millipedes which have been cleared of any millipede juice by zapping them until they run out of defensive secretions.

They found that the Myriophora flies were rather attracted to paper cards dabbed with millipede juice and millipedes that were smeared with their own defensive secretions. In contrast, the flies completely ignored perfectly intact millipedes that were completely juiced out. So it seems that the scent of a millipede is far more important than the sight of one for these flies.

So not only are Myriphora not deterred by the millipede's noxious chemicals, they are actually attracted to it. But millipede juice is a complex chemical cocktail - which is the exact compound that the flies are homing in on? After further analysis, the researchers determined that the compound in millipede juice most responsible for attracted these parasitoids is a chemical called 2-methoxy-3-methyl-1,4-benzoquinone. That alone was enough to bring the flies to the yard. But when that is combined with another compound found in millipede juice called 2-methyl-1,4-benzoquinone, this cocktail was three times more attractive to Myriophora flies than that first compound by itself.

But a millipede is a well-protected target - even if you can get past its noxious secretions, it also has some formidable armour platings. But there are gaps in its armoured segments and Myriophora has a specialist weapon to exploit those gaps. This parasitoid fly has an ovipositor which is shaped somewhat like a thin stiletto - when it lands on a millipede, Myriophora stabs its ovipositor at spots like the base of the antenna, the gap between the head and the rest of the body, the vulnerable underbelly of the body segment, or between the plates covering the millipede's butt.

The parasitoid sticks its ovipositor between those gaps in the millipede's armour, and delivers a deadly payload in the form of an egg. Once the egg hatches inside the millipede, the newborn maggot has a hearty appetite and a growth rate to match. Within five days, it will finish cleaning out the millipede host from the inside, leaving behind only an empty husk and the millipede's hindgut. The maggot will then crawl from its host's empty corpse to pupate and eventually emerge as an adult fly, ready to bring up a new generation of millipede-wreckers

So for the millipedes, while those defensive cocktails are great for fending off everything else, there is no perfect defence - the very thing that protects it against some many predators is also the very thing that brings in parasitoid flies that will eat them alive.

Hash, J. M., Millar, J. G., Heraty, J. M., Harwood, J. F., & Brown, B. V. (2017). Millipede Defensive Compounds Are a Double-Edged Sword: Natural History of the Millipede-Parasitic Genus Myriophora Brown (Diptera: Phoridae). Journal of Chemical Ecology 43: 198-206.

July 10, 2017

Anoplocephala manubriata

Tapeworms are a very diverse group of parasitic worms. There are about 6000 described species and they infect a wide range of different vertebrate animals including fish, amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and birds. But even though there are so many different tapeworm species, the one thing they all have in common is that the adult worm lives in the intestine of their vertebrate host. So it would be no surprise that a large animal like an elephant would be host to tapeworms, and the species that is featured in the study that we will be covering in this blog post is Anoplocephala manubriata.

Top left: Adult Anocepgala manubriata tapeworm
Top right, bottom left: close-up of scolex and suckers
Bottom right: tapeworm egg containing oncosphere
Photo from Fig. 1 and 3 of the paper
Despite being an elephant parasite, these tapeworms are not as big as you might think. Many people think that big host means big parasites, and while some parasites in large animals can reach massive sizes, but that is not always the case. Instead of being infected by big parasites, many large animals are often host to parasites that are not much bigger than related species infecting smaller hosts.

For example, the Great White Shark is infected by a species of tiny tapeworm which measures just a few millimetres long, but what they lack in size they make up for in numbers, and a single shark can be infected by thousands of them. While A. manubriata grows to a respectable size for a tapeworm (4.6 cm–7.4 cm long and 0.7 cm to 1.8 cm wide), it is nowhere near the size of the infamous broad fish tapeworm which can reach the alarming length of over 10 metres long.

The tapeworms described in this study were retrieved from a young male elephant that died at the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home in Sri Lanka. Anoplocephala manubriata has very muscular suckers on its scolex which allows it to keep a firm grip on the host intestinal wall. But this is not so great for the elephant - the suction from the tapeworms' suckers essentially end up leaving hickeys on the elephant's intestinal mucosa, which is not a particularly healthy place for an elephant to get love bites, especially if they have been left there by a bunch of tapeworms. Indeed, the elephant that was necropsied in this study was found to have multiple lesions and ulcers on the gut lining as a result of these parasitic love bites. This tapeworm seems to be far more common among younger elephants than adults, possibly because older elephants have more developed immune systems, and have build up some kind of resistant towards these parasites.

Tapeworms have complex life-cycles, and before the adult worm ends up in the intestine of the final host, they have to first develop as larval stages in smaller animals - usually an invertebrate, in some case a small vertebrate animal - and these small animals are usually the prey species of the final host. That is why the final host for many species of tapeworms are often predatory animals or at least animals that include smaller animals in their diet.  But what about elephants though? They are not usually known for eating bugs or other small animals, and the other tapeworms in the Anoplocephala genus are parasites that infect horses, zebras, and rhinoceros - all herbivorous mammals. So how does A. manubriata finds its way into these giant herbivorous animals?

A previous study found that A. manubriata actually uses orbatid mites as an intermediate host. Orbatid mites are minuscule arachnids that live among soil and litters - they are very tiny, and most species are less than one millimetre long. But being so tiny means that the elephant can easily swallow them inadvertently along with their usual fodder. Branches and leaves that have been in contact with soil can inadvertently pick up some of these tiny mites, and at least a few of those would be infected with  A. manubriata larvae. But there is also another way through which elephant can end up with A. manubriata. Elephants that have gastrointestinal problems also have a habit of eating dirt, possibly as a way of self-medication, as seen in other animal. However, while trying to cure themselves of one ill, they end up ingesting soil mites and inflicting another different ill upon themselves.

Like many parasites, A. manubriata is a key part of the ecosystem, and the life-cycle of this tapeworm, which involves both the elephants and soil mites, reveals the hidden ecological connection between one of the planet's largest living land animal and one of its smallest.

Perera, K. U. E., Wickramasinghe, S., Perera, B. V. P., Bandara, K. B. A., & Rajapakse, R. P. V. J. (2017). Redescription and molecular characterization of Anoplocephala manubriata, Railliet et al., 1914 (Cestoda: Anoplocephalidae) from a Sri Lankan wild elephant (Elephas maximus). Parasitology International 66: 279-286.