"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

August 10, 2023

Bothrigaster variolaris

Student guest post time! One of the assessments that I set for students in my ZOOL329 Evolutionary Parasitology class is for them to summarise and write about a paper that they have read in the manner of a blog post. The best blog posts from the class are selected for re-posting (with their permission) here on the Parasite of the Day blog. So from the class of 2023, here’s a post by Nikita Sheelah, about a bird of prey with too many flukes.

To dare to do what hasn’t been done before has been the driving force behind many advancements in society, such as the creation of vaccines, anime, or the ground-breaking Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Being the first in recorded history to do something different essentially immortalises people in the history books, which often carries incredible pride and achievement. This seems to be the case for a group of trematode flukes (Bothrigaster variolaris) which infected a snail kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis), and made their way into the bird’s air sacs, causing the snail kite’s fatal end. 

Left: Snail Kite, photo taken by Bernard DuPont, used under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) license. 
Right: Bothrigaster variolaris fluke from Fig. 6 of the paper. Centre Insert: Bothrigaster variolaris fluke on the pericardium of the Snail kite's heart from Fig. 1 of the paper

“Big deal,” you say, “trematodes infect air sacs in birds all the time.” And you’re right! Death from trematodes infecting air sacs is fairly common,  but this has mostly been reported in Passeriformes; birds known to be more susceptible to these parasites. It has even been reported in snail kites themselves, but that was in Florida rather than South America. Every continent needs its own firsts, after all. 

So how did this even happen? Let me explain. Snail kites, as you might have ingenuously guessed from the name, eat snails! Apple snails (Pomacea spp.), to be precise. Trematodes in the Cyclocoelidae family use snails as their hosts for the larval stage, meaning when those snails are eaten, little baby trematodes get to grow up into a mature adult in the body of whatever ate the snail (usually birds). So, much like eating too many candy apples can rot your teeth with cavities, the snail kite indulged in too many infected apple snails and rotted their insides. With flukes. Not cavities. And the insides weren’t rotten, just parasitised. That wasn’t that great of an analogy, actually. 

A wildlife rehabilitation hospital brought this male adult snail kite into their care and did their best to help him, but he passed shortly after arrival. Immediately afterwards, a necropsy was performed to poke and prod at his insides, taking tissue samples and collecting the flukes. Not the most dignified funeral rites, but it’s all in the name of science, because over 200 flukes were counted in the bird! Thirty-five were collected for DNA analysis and were identified to be in a distinct clade within the Cyclocoelidae family. The physical characteristics of the flukes backed this up, especially the ventral sucker, which is characteristic to the genus Bothrigaster within that family.

Researchers concluded that the bird most likely died from suffocation due to the obstruction by the parasites, as well as lesions in the respiratory tissue. They also noted a mature trematode in one of the wing bones, which is a pretty uncommon spot for a parasitic flukes to be. What an adventurer!

So, these ambitious Cyclocoelidae made history by being the first reported trematodes to have caused death by air sac infection in snail kites in south America. Realistically, this may happen more than we think, and has probably been happening for quite some time, but being the first trematodes to be written about in this sense is a pretty big feat! Their mothers must be so proud. 


This post was written by Nikita Sheelah