"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 18, 2022

Sulcascaris sulcata

Shellfish such as oysters, mussels, and whelks are popular fares among seafood lovers, but we are not the only ones with a taste for those molluscs. Despite being heavily-armoured, many of the animals that we consider as "shellfish" are also food for a variety of larger marine animals. But their status as prey to these larger animals also make them attractive intermediate hosts for a wide range of parasites, which use these shellfish as vehicles to reach their final hosts. And sometimes humans end up being the unintended destination.

Anisakidae is a family of nematode worms commonly found in some seafood, and it is responsible for anisakiasis - a type of seafood-borne illness. While their usual hosts are mainly marine mammals, when anisakid nematodes get in humans, they nevertheless try to burrow through the stomach or intestinal wall, causing a great deal of pain. Additionally, their tissue and protein secretions may also cause a severe allergic reaction, including acute onset anaphylaxis.

Most studies on anisakids and anisakiasis focus on the genera Anisakis and Pseudoterranova which are often found in fish. But there are many other lesser-known genera and species in the Anisakidae family. Sulcascaris sulcata is one such species and unlike other anisakid nematodes which use marine mammals or birds as their final hosts, Sulcascaris infects a marine reptile - specifically the loggerhead sea turtle - as its final host.

Left: Photo of a Purple-dye Murex by Holger Krisp, used under the Creative Commons (CC BY 3.0) license
Right: (top) SEM close-up photo of Sulcascaris larva's head, (bottom) a fourth-stage Sulcascaris larva  
(Photo of the nematode from Fig. 2 and Fig 4. of the paper)

Larvae of Sulcascaris have recently been reported from scallops and mussels - which raises some concerns since both are popular shellfish that are often eaten only lightly cooked or not at all. A recently published study adds another shellfish to that list - the purple dye murex, Bolinus brandaris. These large predatory snails are so-called because they used to be harvested to obtain a special type of purple dye. But in addition to their historic use in the textile industry, they are also commonly eaten in many parts of the Mediterranean.

A group of researchers in Italy obtained a haul of purple murex from fishermen on the coast of Baia Domizia, Italy, and brought the snails back to their laboratory to dissect them for parasites. Upon detailed examinations of the snails' organs, they found that 9 out of the 56 snails they obtained were infected with Sulcascaris larvae. However, infection intensity was very low, with most of the infected snails being parasitised by just a single nematode larva. These larval worms measured between one to five centimetres long, and were mostly lodged at the base of the snail's proboscis, with a few others found in the mantle cavity - the fleshy bag in a mollusc's body which houses its gills and other organs. 

Because of where those parasites are located in the snails, they can easily get overlooked during routine sanitary inspections, which only involve examining the outer appearance of the snail. The reason why those worms were mostly situated in those parts of the snail's anatomy might be due to their infection pathway. When the eggs of Sulcascaris are released from the turtle host, they settle onto the seafloor where they hatch into larval stages that lie in wait for an encounter with an unlucky murex. As the predatory sea snail moves across the sea floor, searching for prey with its proboscis, those larvae are sucked in via the inhalant current which transport them right into the snail's proboscis and mantle cavity.

Sea turtles with their strong beak and jaws can crack into these tasty snails which are off-limits to other animals, but it also means they end up with Sulcascaris in their gut. While this and previous studies on Sulcasacris have found that most shellfish carried only one or two individual nematodes, a turtle can eat a lot of shellfish, and over time may end up accumulating dozens or even hundreds of those worms in their stomach. When present in large numbers, these nematodes may cause ulcerous gastritis in sea turtles. But aside from that, not as much is known about this worm compared with its more famous, mammal-dwelling relatives, such as Anisakis.

So what does this mean for people who love eating shellfish? Based on prior experiments, it seems that Sulcasacaris can only infect sea turtles, so it is unlikely to become a zoonotic infection if it ends up being ingested by humans. Also, as mentioned above, when they are present, it's only one or two worms in each shellfish, and since purple murex are usually eaten after being cooked, this would kill the worm in the process. So the health risks presented by Sulcasacaris to any seafood consumers are relatively minimal.

However, like other anisakid worms, their tissue and secreted proteins may still potentially cause allergic reactions in some people, even after cooking. But not much is known about that possibility. The researchers suggested that at the very least, commercial fishermen should avoid harvesting snails from areas with sea turtles, since they are likely to be infected with Sulcascaris. This could be a win-win situation for both turtles and people - the turtles get to keep their feeding grounds to themselves, and seafood lovers can safely enjoy some worm-free sea snails. 

As the consumption of fish and other seafood increases around the world, there is a greater need for more studies on the wide variety of parasites that are found in seafood, along with people who have the skills and expertise to identify them - so we can continue to enjoy seafood without unintentionally barging into the life cycle of a parasite (and suffer its associating consequences).

Santoro, M., Palomba, M., & Modica, M. V. (2022). Larvae of Sulcascaris sulcata (Nematoda: Anisakidae), a parasite of sea turtles, infect the edible purple dye murex Bolinus brandaris in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Food Control 132: 108547.

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