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Fat chance for hosts


New study shows parasitic flatworms take destiny by the tail

In the research article "Larval swimming overpowers turbulent mixing and facilitates transmission of a marine parasite," appearing in the September issue of the Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecology, Jonathan Fingerut of the University of California-Los Angeles and colleagues describe the results of the first study to examine larval behavior versus passive-transport processes under natural and simulated water flow conditions.

H. rhigedana is one of the most common parasitic flatworms found in southern California. Sexual reproduction takes place in definitive host birds, which defecate the parasite’s eggs into marshes. The first swimming larval stage (miracidia) infect the California horn snail, causing castration and other sublethal effects. Asexual reproduction ensues, producing tens of free-swimming cercariae per snail per day, which encyst on other snails and crabs as second intermediate hosts. Birds which eat the snails and crabs complete the parasite’s life cycle.

Fingerut and his colleagues Cheryl Ann Zimmer and Richard Zimmer, also of UC-Los Angeles, wanted to determine what explains the unusually high transmission rate of H. rhigedana’s cercariae (second larval stage). The larvae encyst up to 100 percent of the local snail and crab second intermediate hosts, an especially astonishing feat since this larval stage has but four hours to locate and infect its host.

The researchers examined the range of variation and effect on larval swimming of relevant physical factors (light, temperature, salinity and water flow). They also used new laser and digital video imaging technologies to identify active versus passive transport of the larvae.

"In our still water experiments, we found that exposure to light caused cercariae to swim straight toward the bottom of the water body where they were likely to encounter their hosts," says Fingerut. "And while salinity had no impact on either swim speed or direction, a 33 percent increase in water temperature led to a 71 percent increase in the larvae’s swim speeds, bringing the larvae to the bottom faster."

When the researchers looked at the same variables in slow-moving water conditions, they found similar results: the cercariae swam determinedly towards the bottom, prevailing over the slow-moving water currents. However, fast-moving water bodies overwhelmed the larvae’s ability to control their movements and they were distributed throughout the water column, much like passive particles. Water temperature had no effect in this setting.

"Our study indicates that whether adaptive or fortuitous, parasite transmission is largely controlled by the cercariae and not by the vagaries of flow," the investigators conclude.

Founded in 1915, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) is a scientific, non-profit, organization with 8000 members. Through ESA reports, journals, membership research, and expert testimony to Congress, ESA seeks to promote the responsible application of ecological data and principles to the solution of environmental problems. For more information about the Society and its activities, access ESA’s web site at:

Annie Drinkard | EurekAlert!
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