"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

January 11, 2018

Riggia puyensis

It is no secret that I am a big fan of parasitic isopods, especially those in the Cymothoidae family - the most well-known of which is the tongue biter parasite, and my love for these adorable crustaceans has even manifest itself in some of my artwork. But while the tongue-biters are no doubt the most (in)famous representatives of that family, to the extent that they even made an appearance on an episode of the Colbert Report, it is their less well-known cousins - the belly-dwellers/burrowers - that turn the horror factor up a notch (or four, or eleven) and as a result, really earned my adoration.

Left: Adult female Riggia puyensis (scale bar = 10 mm), Right: Adult make Riggia puyensis (scale bar = 1 mm)
From Fig. 3 and Fig. 9 of the paper

Imagine if the chest-burster xenomorph from Aliens didn't just explode through your ribcage and leave you for dead - instead, it stays inside your torso for the rest of your life, laying a steady stream of eggs that trickle out through a small(ish) hole in you belly. That's how these belly-dwelling isopod live their lives. So let's kick off the year with a recently described species of these belly-dwellers!

I've previously written a post about a species of belly-dweller call Artysone trysibia which lives in the body cavity of an armoured catfish from the Amazon. This post features Riggia puyensis, which is quite similar to A. trysibia in that it was also found to be parasitising armoured catfish, specifically two species from the Bobonaza River and Puyo River in central Ecuador - Chaetostoma breve and Chaetostoma microps - both of which are better known as suckermouth armoured catfish.

Most of the R. puyensis specimens that the scientists found in this study were females, but the scientists did come across three male specimens which were clinging to the limbs of the female isopods. These male isopods are comparatively tiny reaching only one-tenth the length of the adult female R. puyenesis. The small size and relative rarity of males is par for the course for Riggia. In other studies on this genus of parasite, male isopods are rarely found, if at all. It is possible that this is because the mating strategy of the male isopod is to scoot in, mate with the larger female, then go off and find another infected host.

Riggia puyensis inside its host, from Fig. 2 of the paper
In this study, each infected fish was only parasitised by a single female isopod - which is probably just as well since R. puyensis is quite large in relation to the host. The female R. puyensis reaches over an inch in length and considering one of the host catfish is a species that grows to about four inches long at most, that parasite is a hefty load to be carrying around. It would be like having a corgi living inside you.

So it may seem rather surprising that the survival of these fish does not seem to be compromised by the parasite. In fact, a previous study have shown that the parasite may in fact enhance the infected fish's growth. But this parasite-induced growth spurt comes at a price - after all, there is no free lunch in nature and for the gain in body growth, the parasite incurs a severe penalty on the fish's reproductive functions. A study on bonefish parasitised by Riggia paranensis found that infected fish has reduced level of sex hormones and undeveloped gonads.

So Riggia render its fish host impotent in order to free up more resources for body growth, and a bigger host means more for the parasite to consume. So while a chest-bursting xenomorph invokes a more immediate visceral reaction, the way that R. puyensis and other parasitic castrators modify their hosts' body to fuel their own reproduction presents a more existential form of lingering horror.

Haro, C. R., Montes, M. M., Marcotegui, P., & Martorelli, S. R. (2017). Riggia puyensis n. sp.(Isopoda: Cymothoidae) parasitizing Chaetostoma breve and Chaetostoma microps (Siluriformes: Loricariidae) from Ecuador. Acta Tropica 166: 328-335.