"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 11, 2023

Diexanthema hakuhomaruae

The study in this post takes us to one of the darkest corners of the deep sea, over 7000 m below sea level in the Kuril-Kamchatka Trench, located in the northwestern Pacific. Living in this dark and oppressive environment are isopods called Eugerdella kurabyssalis. And despite the crushing pressure, these crustaceans like it just fine, in fact they are the most abundant isopod down in those depths. But such success and abundance can also attract the attention of parasites, and this post is about a newly described parasitic copepod called Diexanthema hakuhomaruae.

Left: Diexanthema hakuhomaruae (indicated by white arrow) attached to the leg of its Eugerdella kurabyssalis isopod host. Right: Close-up of D. hakuhomaruae, the arrow indicating the copepod's ovaries. Photos from Figure 1 of the paper

Those who are familiar with this blog would know that parasitic copepods come in all kinds of shapes  that would defy most people's idea of what a crustacean is "supposed" to look like. And D. hakuhomaruae is no different - its tiny body is ROUND and if anything, it looks almost like a legless tick. And much like a tick, D. hakuhomaruae attaches itself stubbornly to the leg of its host.

Diexanthema hakuhomaruae belongs to the Nicothoidae family, a group of parasitic copepods that contains about 140 known species. They live on a variety of crustacean hosts, including tanaidaceans, ostracods, amphipods, cumaceans, mysid shrimps, and lobsters. Most of them have a rotund, almost spherical body, greatly reduced or no legs at all, and a specialised mouthpart that ends in a sucker with syringe-like mandibles. And much like the ticks that they resemble, these copepods feed by stabbing their mouth syringe into their host's body and sucking up that crustacean blood (hemolymph) on tap. Some species such as Choniomyzon infaltus are specialised egg parasites - their balloon-shaped bodies allow them to hide amidst broods of their hosts and feed on their eggs without being discovered.

There are currently six other known species of Diexanthema, all of them are parasites of deep sea isopods. And Diexanthema is not alone in its preference - there are other nicothoid copepods that have also been found parasitising deep sea isopods. What makes D. hakuhomaruae special is that it is the first to be found from the Hadal Zone. All other Diexanthema species have been reported from depths of 1300 to 3500 metres below sea level, but none of them had gone down as deep as D. hakuhomaruae.

It is unknown whether D. hakuhomaruae feeds on the host's fluid or if it is an egg parasite, or how it even completes itself life cycle in the hadal zone - as you can imagine, discovering and describing such parasites in an environment like the deep sea is challenging enough as it is. Studying the life style and ecology of these deep sea parasites with current technology is next to impossible. Even so, this description shows that parasitism is indeed ubiquitous on this planet, and wherever you find life, you can be sure that some of them will be parasites

Kakui, K., Fukuchi, J., & Ohta, M. (2023). Diexanthema hakuhomaruae sp. nov.(Copepoda: Siphonostomatoida: Nicothoidae) from the Hadal Zone in the Northwestern Pacific, with an 18S Molecular Phylogeny. Acta Parasitologica 68: 413-419.