"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

March 17, 2022

Thaumastognathia bicorniger

Gnathiidae is a family of parasitic isopods that can be considered as ticks of the sea. I make that comparison not only because gnathiids are blood-feeding arthropods, but like ticks, their life cycle involves going through a series of feeding and non-feeding stages. The blood-hungry fish-seeking stage is called a zuphea that, much like how a tick would on land, attaches itself onto passing fish and starts feeding to its heart's content. Once it is fully engorged with a belly full of blood, it becomes what's called a pranzia, which drops off the fish to grow and moult into its next stage. Gnathiid isopods need to go through alternating between the zuphea and the pranzia stage at least three consecutive times before they can reach full maturity.

Thaumastognathia bicorniger stripe (left) and spots (centre) pigemented third stage pranzia, and adult male (right)
From Fig. 2. of the paper

The paper featured today is about Thaumastognathia bicorniger, a gnathiid isopod which has recently been described from the waters of Japan. The researchers who described this species found the isopod on various chimaera and sharks that were caught by fishing vessels operating in the waters of Suruga Bay and around Kumejima Island. Additionally, they were also able to obtain previously collected specimens of this isopod that had been stored at the laboratory of fish pathology at Nihon University. Those specimens were originally collected from various different cartilaginous fishes that were caught by fishing vessels off the southern coast of central Japan.

Based on their samples, this isopod has been recorded to feast on the blood of at least ten different species of cartilaginous fishes including nine species of sharks from six different families, along with one species of chimaera (also known as ratfish, in this case the Silver Chimaera). Thaumastognathia bicorniger larvae were always found in the gill chamber of their hosts, where they attached themselves to the blood-rich gill filaments. These isopods are tiny, with the third stage praniza larva measuring about 3.7-4.8 mm long, so having one or two of them would merely pose a minor inconvenience to the host. 

However, some sharks were found to be infected with dozens or even hundreds of those tiny blood-suckers. Of those, the Blotchy Swellshark (Cephaloscyllium umbratile), the Shortspine Spurdog (Squalus mitsukurii), and the Starspotted smooth-hound (Mustelus manazo) appeared to be among this gnathiid's favourite hosts, as they were commonly found to be infected with at least 50 T. bicorniger larvae and some even harboured hundreds of those blood-sucking isopods in their gill chambers. Additionally, much like how ticks are known to carry various pathogens, gnathiid isopods have also been implicated in the transmission of blood-borne parasites in coral reef fishes.

The juvenile stages of T. bicorniger seem to come in two different colour patterns - spotty and stripey. This was only visible in the live or freshly caught specimens as the colour faded rapidly when they are preserved in ethanol. Genetic analysis revealed that despite their superficial differences, those two colour morphs belong to the same species, and it is unclear whether the different colour patterns signify anything, as they're not associated with a particular haplotype, sex, nor host species.

The researchers kept some of the gnathiid larvae alive in captivity to see if any of them would metamorphose into an adult stage - but only one successfully moulted into an adult male. Among gnathiid isopods, there is a high degree of sexual dimorphism - the male gnathiids have squat body with big mandibles, while in contrast, female gnathiid have a larger rotund body for brooding eggs into larvae. Neither of which look anything like a "typical" isopod like a woodlouse or even the infamous tongue-biter parasite and its cymothoid relatives.

For other species of gnathiid isopods, metamorphosing from the third-stage pranzia into a mature adult is a relatively brief process. After their last feeding session, some species would take just a week or two to mature into a reproductive adult, while others may take up to two months at most. However, T. bicorniger took a whooping 204 days to moult from a third stage pranzia into an adult. So why does T. bicorniger take so long to mature compared with other species of gnathiid isopods?

Gnathiid metabolism and growth is greatly affected by water temperature, and many of the gnathiids that have very short development time are found in warmer, tropical waters. In this study researchers kept their T. bicorniger at 10-20°C in their lab, which is slightly cooler than the water temperature that those other known gnathiids are regularly exposed to. However, there is a species of Antarctic gnathiid - Gnathiia calva - which only took 6 weeks to transform into an adult despite living in waters that were kept at 0 to -1°C.

Alternatively it might have something to do with the fishes that they were feeding on. Many sharks have high levels of urea in their blood, which may make their blood more difficult to digest for any would-be blood-suckers. Lamprey that feed on basking sharks are specially adapted to excrete large volumes of urea which is found in their host's blood. The need to detoxify your food would most likely complicate the digestion process, decrease the blood's nutritional value, which would result in cost to development time. But then again there is another gnathiid species - Gnathia trimaculata - which infects Blacktip reef shark (Carcharinus melanopterus) and it only takes 6 (for males) or 24 days (for female) to moult into an adult.

So for now, the reason(s) why T. bicorniger seems to take such a long time to grow into an adult compared with other species of gnathiid isopods, remains a unsolved mystery.

Ota, Y., Kurashima, A., & Horie, T. (2022). First Record of Elasmobranch Hosts for the Gnathiid Isopod Crustacean Thaumastognathia: Description of Thaumastognathia bicorniger sp. nov. Zoological Science, 39: 124-139