"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 15, 2013

Tetrabothrius bassani

It has been known for some time that intestinal parasites such as tapeworms can accumulate high concentrations of heavy metals, acting as a sink for such substances in the host's body. Back in 2010 a study on shark tapeworms accumulating heavy metals was featured on this blog, but most of such studies comparing the concentration of heavy metals in the host's organs with that of their parasites have been conducted on fish and fewer studies have looked at the heavy metal concentrations of intestinal parasites in birds and in particular seabirds, which form an important part of the marine ecosystem.

Photo of Tetrabothrius scolex (attachment organ)
from this paper
In the study we are featuring today, researchers tested the concentration of various heavy metals in the organs of twenty-three Northern Gannets from the central coast of Portugal. The birds had died when they were tangled up in fishing gear from commercial fishing boats, but they were otherwise in good health before they ended up on the wrong end of some fishing nets. They all had stomachs full of fish and the only parasite found in their intestines was the tapeworm we are featuring today - Tetrabothrius bassani. There are a number of different species in the Tetrabothrius genus, some species like T. bassani parasitise seabirds such as gannets and albatrosses, while other are found in whales - for example, I wrote a post a few years ago about some tapeworms I found in the gut of a beaked whale, which you can read about here.

For this study, the researchers collected at least one T. bassani from each gannet and took tissue samples from the bird's liver, kidney and pectoral muscle to measure the concentration of different heavy metals. They found that, on average, T. bassani accumulated twelve times as much cadmium as the gannet's pectoral muscles. Furthermore the tapeworms had seven to ten times more lead than the seabird's kidneys and liver. Since these worms seem to act like sponges that soak up and concentrate heavy metals, such substances would reach detectable level in the tapeworms well before they became noticeable in the host's own tissues. Because of that, these parasites can possibly serve as early warning indicators for the presence of pollutants in the environment.

Mendes, P., Eira, C., Vingada, J., Miquel, J., & Torres, J. (2013). The system Tetrabothrius bassani (Tetrabothriidae)/Morus bassanus (Sulidae) as a bioindicator of marine heavy metal pollution. Acta Parasitologica, 58: 21-25.

July 2, 2013

Flamingolepis liguloides

The parasite that features prominently in the study we are looking at today is a tapeworm that lives in flamingoes - something that you might have already guessed by the parasite's genus name. The larval stage of the tapeworm Flamingolepis liguloides lives inside brine shrimps, which happen to be a major part of the flamingo's diet. Previous research has found that this parasite is capable of altering the behaviour of the shrimp as well as their colour and fat content.

Photo of F. liguloides larvae from the paper
In this new study, a team of scientists looked at the frequency of larval F. liguloides (and other tapeworms) in two brine shrimp species found in Mediterranean wetlands - Artemia parthenogenetica and Artemia salina - and how they related to the abundance of birds, the final hosts for those tapeworms. As the name indicates, A. parthenogenetica reproduces asexually (without mating), while A. salina is a more conventional sexually reproducing species.

Flamingolepis liguloides is not the only species of tapeworm infecting those shrimps, in fact each Artemia species harbours nine different tapeworm species each for a total of ten different tapeworms (both species of shrimps share a number of tapeworms in common). But F. liguloides is by far the most dominant, probably because flamingoes also happen to be the most numerous and long-lived birds in the area - the researchers estimated that flamingoes represented almost ninety percent of the bird biomass at those wetlands. Despite its dominance, F. liguloides does not seem to push aside the other tapeworms; the brine shrimps often harbour multiple species of tapeworms and the different parasites don't seem to get in each other's way. The fact that they have so many different species of parasites is also an indicator of the wide variety of birds that frequently visited the area. The Odiel marshes, where the scientists collected the asexual brine shrimps, is home for up to twenty thousand shorebirds during migration periods.

Photo of brine shrimps by Hans Hillewaert via Wikipedia
There were some seasonal patterns in infection prevalence. For the asexual brine shrimp, it ranged from a low of four percent to almost half the population being infected, whereas the parasite prevalence in sexual brine shrimps was consistently high, with tapeworms being found in over a quarter to almost three quarters of the shrimp throughout the year. The researchers found that such seasonal changes in the prevalence of some (but not all) of the tapeworms were associated with changes in abundance of the bird hosts. However, the scientists suggested that the consistently high tapeworm abundance in A. salinawas due to the areas they studied being protected areas that harbour thousands of birds, especially flamingoes, which flock there in huge numbers as their wetland habitats are destroyed elsewhere.

The high abundance of tapeworm infections simply reflects a high abundance in the bird hosts that harbour the adult worm that produces eggs that infect the brine shrimps. Therefore, bird watchers should perhaps be thankful for the presence of shrimps heavily infected by a wide variety of parasitic worms!

Sánchez, Marta I., et al. (2013) "High prevalence of cestodes in Artemia spp. throughout the annual cycle: relationship with abundance of avian final hosts." Parasitology Research 112: 1913-1923.