"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

April 28, 2017

Arthrorhynchus nycteribiae

Bat flies are ectoparasites that cling to bats and suck their blood. As their name indicates, they are actually flies, but their bodies have been so heavily modified for their parasitic life style that they are barely recognisable as such. Many of them look like spiders with their long crawling legs which allow them to climb all over a bat's furry coat, and some species have even lost their wings. They can be very picky about what species of bat they parasitise, and most bat flies are specialists that are only found on one or two bat species. While they are a pest to bats, these bat flies also have their own ectoparasites to deal with, in the form of a group of fungi, and this post is on a study which examined some of them.
Bat fly Penicillidia conspicua with Arthrorhynchus nycteribiae attached
from Fig. 3. of the paper

These fungi belong to a group call Laboulbeniales, and are more commonly known as the "labouls". The live on the cuticle of their hosts and are not as invasive as other insect-infecting fungi. Labouls are found on a variety of different terrestrial arthropods including mites, millipedes and insects, but most species of labouls are found on beetles - which is to be expected somewhat since most species of terrestrial arthropods are beetles.

Labouls that infect bat flies have been found all over the world, but they in the environment where they do occur, they are relatively rare. In one study, scientists screened over 2500 bat flies and found only 56 laboul-infected flies. In Europe, there are four species of labouls that live on bat flies, all of them belong to the genus Arthrorhynchus. The fungi described in this study came from bat flies which lived on bats in the mountainous region of Hungary and parts of Romania. The samples were collected as a part of a long term bat surveys which took place between 1998 to 2015.

During the course of the survey, researchers caught bats with mist nets which were placed close to roosting sites. The bats that they caught were inspected for bat flies, and then released right after the researchers finished picking off their bat flies. They end up screening 1594 bats and collected a total of 1494 bat flies. Most of the bat flies the researchers collected were free from labouls, and of the eleven bat fly species they came across, only three were hosting labouls from two species - Arthrorhynchus eucampsipodae and Arthrorhynchus nycteribiae. The most commonly infected bat fly was the spider-look-alike bat fly Penicillidia conspicua - about a quarter of all the P. conspicua they found were infected with A. nycteribiae, and they seem to be the preferred host for that fungus.

Regardless of host fly species, the laboul fungi have an overwhelming preference for infecting female flies. This might be due to female flies simply being better hosts for the fungi - they live for longer than male flies (which gives them more opportunity to pick up laboul infections), they grow bigger, and have higher fat reserves (especially during pregnancy - yes, bat flies get pregnant), all of which makes them better hosts for the labouls than male bat flies.

There is still much that we do not known about these ectoparasites of ectoparasites - do all the bat fly labouls have a single common ancestor that initially jumped onto bat flies from some other insect host, then diversified into different species? Or did the different laboul species independently colonised bat flies on their own? Given mixed species roosts are pretty common among bats, how does this affect the transmission and evolution of these fungi on the bat flies? Additional do the labouls affect the interactions between the bat flies and their hosts?

Parasites can themselves become parasitised. Even on the backs of flies that live on the backs of bats, there is an undiscovered world of biological diversity - and we have barely scratched its surface.

Haelewaters, D. et al. (2017). Parasites of parasites of bats: Laboulbeniales (Fungi: Ascomycota) on bat flies (Diptera: Nycteribiidae) in central Europe. Parasites & Vectors 10(1): 96.

April 15, 2017

Amphiorchis sp.

Sea turtles have a lot of different parasites infecting them - in a previous post I wrote about a recently published study on a parasitic copepod that eats sea turtle skin. But as well as external parasites, turtles are also infected by a range of internal parasites, many of which are digenean flukes, but the ones that cause the most harm are the blood flukes. While most parasitic flukes that infect turtles live in the intestine and cause relatively little harm unless they occur in large numbers, blood flukes, as their name indicates, live in the circulatory system.

Top: shell of the worm snail Thylaeodus rugulosus,
Bottom: cercaria of Amphiorchis sp.
Photo from Fig. 1. of the paper
Infection by these blood flukes can cause a range of disease symptoms, but by far the main source of grief to their reptilian host comes from the eggs they lay in the hundreds and thousands. These microscopic eggs get circulated in the turtle's blood vessels and many of them become lodged in various parts of the turtle's body where they can cause damage to the surrounding tissue as they triggered the body's immune response. Infected turtles often have internal lesions throughout their tissue and various organs.

But how these flukes get into the turtles in the first place has long been a mystery. Like other digenean trematode flukes, blood flukes require some kind of invertebrate host - usually a snail - in which they undergo asexual/clonal reproduction to produce free-swimming larval stages call cercariae (which is the stage that infects the turtle). But there are many different species of snails in the sea, which species is/are the one(s) pumping out those turtle parasites? It is like looking for a needle in a haystack in a bigger haystack which is the size of an iceberg.

Recently, a group of very sick loggerhead turtles presented an opportunity to find out more about the life-cycle of these blood flukes. At the Sea Turtle Rescue Centre (ARCA del Mar) (which was where the study described in the previous post took place). Some juvenile turtles were exhibiting symptoms that matched those caused by blood fluke infections and it seems that they were infected by a species of fluke from the Amphiorchis genus. So how were they getting infected? The water supply at the facility is semi-closed and pre-treated to remove any contaminants - so the turtles must be getting infected by cercariae which were coming from inside the facility.

The silver lining to all this was that it was a great opportunity to work out what Amphiorchis is using as a first host to produce clonal larvae. As mentioned above, for most species of flukes, this is usually a snail, and there is only one species of snail living in the facility - worm snails that were encrusting on pipes that delivered water to the facility. Dissection of some specimens confirmed that those snails were filled with the asexual stages of Amphiorchis and thus the source of infection.

The worm snail is a peculiar family of snails call Vermetidae. Unlike other snails, this family of tube-shaped molluscs have evolved to live like tube worms or barnacles by cementing themselves to a hard surface, and casting out a sticky mucus net to haul in microalga, zooplankton, or anything else that gets caught in its snot web (see this video here). This might explain why some sea turtles end up getting such a heavy infections out in the wild. Worm snails are abundant on reefs, or form part of reefs themselves, and sea turtles often hang out around such habitats.

Furthermore, the turtle's shell also happens to be a good surfaces for these snail to stick to - while few encrusting snails in themselves usually wouldn't cause much problem to a sea turtle, if they are infected with Amphiorchis or other blood flukes, these snails get converted into little parasite factories that pumps out a stream of turtle-infecting larvae - and what better host for those tiny, short-lived cercariae to infect than the turtle that the host snail is already encrusted on?

Cribb, T. H., Crespo-Picazo, J. L., Cutmore, S. C., Stacy, B. A., Chapman, P. A., & García-Párraga, D. (2016). Elucidation of the first definitively identified life cycle for a marine turtle blood fluke (Trematoda: Spirorchiidae) enables informed control. International Journal for Parasitology 47: 61-67.