Infection of filamentous phytoplankton by fungal parasites enhances herbivory in pelagic food webs (2020) Frenken et al., Limnology and Oceanography. https://doi.org/10.1002/lno.11474
Image Credit: MarekMiś, CC BY 4.0, Image Cropped
Pelagic ecosystems (see Did You Know) make up more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, and the base of the food web is composed of primary producers like phytoplankton. Primary producers produce their own energy and provide an important service to the rest of the food web (and planet!). Not only do they provide a resource for the upper levels of the food web, but they also contribute to the global climate by making carbon available to other organisms. Because of these large-scale ramifications for any changes in phytoplankton primary production, many studies have investigated how things like nutrients, light, and temperature are able to affect phytoplankton.
A key aspect of certain phytoplankton is that they have morphological characteristics that make them more resistant to consumption by grazers further up the food web, like zooplankton. However, chytrid parasites (the same fungus that is ravaging amphibian populations the world over) are able to get around these defenses and reconnect phytoplankton to their zooplankton consumers. Chytrid infects phytoplankton, it then releases a free-living infectious stage, the zoospore, which is eaten by zooplankton. This indirect connection between inedible phytoplankton (like cyanobacteria) and zooplankton is called the mycoloop, and it can provide zooplankton with up to 40% of their food. Interestingly, studies have shown that zooplankton populations do better when their food, the inedible cyanobacteria, is infected by chytrid. Today’s study investigated how exactly chytrid is able to reduce the cyanobacteria defenses and provide zooplankton with more food.
Image Credit: Hippopx, CC0 1.0, Image Cropped.
Ever since COVID-19 hit, things have changed for people the world over. Many governments enforced lockdowns on their citizens, certain products are harder to get than before (looking at you toilet paper hoarders), and there has been an enormous and terrible loss of life. A wet market in China is suspected to be the source of the outbreak, but one thing to consider as we move forward is that the risk of another outbreak from other animal markets remains high.
Deer mice like the one above are small parts of a complex and interconnected world. When two pieces of their world work against them simultaneously, how are these mice affected? (Image Credit: USDA, CC BY 2.0).
Botfly infections impair the aerobic performance and survival of montane populations of deer mice, Peromyscus maniculatus rufinus (2019) Wilde et al., Functional Ecology, https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13276
Parasites are bad news for the organisms that host them. Some parasites are so bad, they can actually make the host kill itself. Despite these clear and obvious costs to infection, the common consensus is that parasites are not too big of a deal for the host, because of how rare parasitic infection is on average. For example, in my research system only one in ten animals have parasites.
But when these ill-effects of parasitism are combined with other detrimental factors, such as a harsh environment, an organism with parasites is forced to deal with not one but two stressors. The authors of today’s paper were interested in how these effects of parasites may change depending on the environment that the host lived in.
Parasites like this leech can be found all over the world, and anyone growing up near freshwater knows to check for them. But many consider these animals “gross”, so how can we motivate the public and scientists to care about them? (Image credit: John Douglas, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)
As someone who works with parasites, I have to confess that I love them. They are beyond interesting, and I delight in telling people about them and what they do to their host organisms to survive. More often than not, people cringe or look like they would rather run away than hear more about such disgusting creatures. I know that as a disease ecologist I am very much in the minority when it comes to how I feel about parasites, but I think it’s important that we understand how vital these organisms are to the natural world, and the benefits they offer to scientists and their research.