"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

June 11, 2019

Pennella instructa

Swordfish are one of the top predators of the ocean. They can swim through the sea at blistering speed, and slash at their prey with their long, flat bill. But no matter how fast you are, there's one thing you can never swim away from - and that's parasites. This is especially the case for big animal like swordfish as their anatomy provides a wide range of different habitat for all kinds of parasites.
They range from sea lice (caligid copepods) that cling to the swordfish's face, to tapeworm larvae which dwell in their muscle, to roundworms that lay eggs under their skin - just to name a few.

Pennella instructa adult with a cyst. From Fig. 4 of the paper

This post will be focused on a study that reported on the occurrence a parasitic copepod - Pennella instructa - on swordfish caught from the north-eastern Atlantic. The researchers in this study visited the fish auction market at Virgo, Spain, during March to September 2011, looking for the presence of P. instructa on swordfish which were brought in by Portuguese and Spanish long line fish boats over that period.

Even though P. instructa is classified as a crustacean, those who are familiar with this blog (and my Twitter feed) would know that when it comes to parasitic copepods, one should abandon any and all preconceptions they might have of what a crustacean is "supposed" to look like. Pennella instructa is shaped vaguely like a toothbrush - a long narrow body that ends with an abdomen covered in a brush-like plume. The adult parasite can grow to about 20 centimetres (or 7 inches) long. It spends its adult life with the lower half of the body protruding from the swordfish, while the front half is anchored deeply in the host's tissue.

Having a parasite that is half-buried in its host's flesh sounds gruesome enough, but P. instructa does something else which elevates it to Cronenberg-level body horror. See, the parasite has not merely stuck its head into the swordfish's flesh and sucking its blood, it is also wrapped in a kind of meat cocoon that the parasite has crafted out of the host's own tissue. Essentially this parasite has sculpted a cosy little bag for itself out of swordfish meat. This parasite-induced cyst is similar to what some other fish parasites, like the fluke that lives on sunfish (Mola mola) gills, can do with their host.

Of the 1631 swordfishes that the researchers looked at, 167 were found to have visible P. instructa infections, though they only occurred in low numbers on each fish, with the most heavily infected fish carrying 4 individual copepods. But being the kind of parasite that it is, even a single P. instructa can have some significant impact on the swordfish's overall health, depending on where it is located. Aside from drinking the host's blood, the meaty cyst that P. instructa forms around itself can put pressure on the surround tissues and organs. The researchers found that while P. instructa can be found all over the swordfish's body, for whatever reasons, most of them prefer the posterior part of the swordfish, mostly in the thick, meaty part of the tail.

It could be that those sturdy tail muscles provide the parasite with a good site to anchor itself in place. Furthermore, that part of the fish's body is made of the powerful muscle which allows the swordfish to propel itself so quickly through the water, thus they'd be constantly supplied with a steady flow of blood which P. instructa can drink from. But this comes at a significant cost to the host, because if the parasite's cyst is located near the vertebrate column - as they would be if they are embedded in the tail - it may affect the fish's nervous system and compromising its swimming ability.

While P. instructa doesn't infect or cause any health issues in humans, a piece of swordfish steak with a big hole through it and a weird worm thing dangling out the side would probably be off-putting to any would-be customers. But perhaps we might want to consider adding P. instructa to the menu?
Pennella balaenopterae - a related copepod which infect whales - is considered to be gastronomic treat by the Inuit people of the Canadian arctic. So instead of seeing them as a pest, perhaps Pennella might be reconsidered as added garnish for your swordfish steak?

Llarena-Reino, M., Abollo, E., & Pascual, S. (2019). Morphological and genetic identification of Pennella instructa (Copepoda: Pennellidae) on Atlantic swordfish (Xiphias gladius, L. 1758). Fisheries Research 209, 178-185.