Tag Archives: parasite

Invasive Snails and Their Hippo Victims

Image credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

Invasive snails, parasite spillback, and potential parasite spillover drive parasitic diseases of Hippopotamus amphibius in artificial lakes of Zimbabwe (2021) Schols et al., BMC Biology, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12915-021-01093-2

The Crux

Artificial lakes can be a huge plus for the regions where they are constructed. People come to hang out at them, they can serve as habitat for local or migrating species, and they can also improve water accessibility. In fact, the majority of the research that I did for my PhD took place in artificial, human-made lakes (see here and here). Yet, these artificial lakes can also wreak havoc by destroying local ecosystems and introducing invasive species. Furthermore, because humans build communities around these lakes there is a risk of increased transmission of parasites to livestock and humans alike.

One group of common invasive species in these artificial lakes are snails, which serve as intermediate hosts for many parasites (see Did You Know?). Introduced water plants (like hyacinth) often harbor invasive species like the snails, and dams built to make artificial lakes often block snail predators from accessing the lakes, which means that the snails increase in number due to the release from predation pressure. Today’s authors wanted to understand how invasive snails modified parasite transmission within an artificial lake.

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It’s Who and Where You Are

A role for the local environment in driving species-specific parasitism in a multi-host parasite system (2022) Hasik & Siepielski, Freshwater Biology, https://doi.org/10.1111/fwb.13961

Image credit: Adam Hasik, image cropped

The Crux

Parasites are an ever-present part of every ecological community on Earth, yet there are some species that harbor more parasites than others. In systems where parasitism is density-dependent, meaning parasitism increases with host density, the most common/numerous species will harbor the greatest amount of parasites. Yet there are also cases of species-specificity, whereby parasites specifically target a single host species. In other host-parasite systems, local-adaption plays a role in parasitism dynamics, whereby parasites are better at attacking their local hosts than they are attacking foreign hosts and/or hosts are better at defending themselves from local parasites than foreign parasites.

With all of these different factors affecting how host-parasite systems operate, it is important to identify when and if each one is operating within specific ecological communities. This is especially necessary when ecological communities are comprised of multiple host species and multiple parasite species, all of which can/do interact with one another.

To investigate the above factors, we first conducted a survey of parasitism in damselflies (Enallagma spp.) and their water mite parasites (Arrenurus spp.). From there, we then carried out to field experiments to understand why parasitism operates the way it does within this system.

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My Enemy is Not the Enemy of My Other Enemy

Do predators keep prey healthy or make them sicker? A meta- analysis (2022) Richards et al., Ecology Letters, https://doi.org/10.1111/ele.13919

Image credit: Angah hfz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Crux

Ecology is all about understanding how the various parts of the natural world interact with one another. While we tend to think about things like predators, competitors, and parasites as separate entities that have their own effects, it is important to remember that these species interactions can interact with one another. Such interactions will have implications for the dynamics of natural populations.

Of interest is how predators and parasites interact with one another through their shared resources, prey/host species. Specifically, the Healthy Herds Hypothesis (HHH, see Did You Know?) predicts that predators reduce parasitism within the populations of their prey. While the HHH was based on a mathematical model, other theoretical models predict a range of effects, from predators decreasing parasitism to actually increasing parasitism. Because the empirical results from experimental studies show similar variation in their results, today’s authors wanted to determine if there is indeed a consistent, overall effect of predators on the parasitism of their prey.

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Your Immune Defenses Are What You Eat

Condition‐dependent immune function in a freshwater snail revealed by stable isotopes (2022) Seppälä et al., Freshwater Biology, link to article

Image credit: Bj.schoenmakers, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Crux

There are myriad factors at play when it comes to parasitic infections, but the primary physiological barrier for the parasite is the immune function of host organisms. Despite its importance and usefulness, the immune function is costly to maintain. Building and effectively using immune defenses relies on the host being able to secure enough food to properly fuel its defenses. As a result, individuals in poor condition are more susceptible to parasites. Building off of that, if the conditions in a given area are poor/worsening, then an entire population of organisms may be vulnerable to disease outbreak.

Many studies have investigated the dependence of immune function, including one of my own, but many of those studies take place in lab settings where the food given to a host is carefully controlled. While there are obvious benefits to controlling experimental conditions, it can be hard to generalize the findings of a lab study to the natural settings that organisms actually live in. Today’s authors utilized an observational study of a freshwater snail (Lymnaea stagnalis) to better relate host condition in nature to immune function.

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The Lazy Bird Gets the Worm

A fine-scale analysis reveals microgeographic hotspots maximizing infection rate between a parasite and its fish host (2021) Mathieu-Bégné et al., Functional Ecology, https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13967

Image credit: Viridiflavus via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Crux

Interactions between hosts and parasites can be broken down into two broad stages: the encounter filter and the compatibility filter. The encounter filter determines whether a parasite actually comes in contact with a host, through either a spatial or temporal overlap. After the encounter filter comes the compatibility filter, the stage at which a parasite either successfully infects a host and takes the resources needed, or is successfully repelled by the host. Though the encounter filter must come before the compatibility filter, most studies tend to focus on the compatibility filter. Yet for a parasite to successfully encounter a host, many obstacles must first be overcome.

Parasites tend to be very small, and hosts tend to be rare. Furthermore, many hosts move around the environment and/or are only available to a parasite at specific times of the year. Finally, in many cases the environment that a single host can occupy is huge. With all of these difficulties facing parasites, it is not surprising that they have evolved many different strategies to effectively find hosts.

However, some species don’t appear to display these strategies. For them to succeed, it is possible that they distribute themselves in a non-random (see Did You Know?) fashion in the environment, clumping together to form “hot-spots” of infection. Other studies have investigated this “hot-spot” phenomenon before, but tended to focus on larger spatial scales, anywhere from hundreds to thousands of meters. Today’s authors wanted to understand if investigations at much smaller spatial scales (i.e., ~10 meters or less) could provide further insight into the spatial aggregation of parasites.

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Putting The Science Into Science Fiction: Meeting NY Times Best-Selling Author Scott Sigler

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0, image cropped with book title inserted

Over the last nine months, we’ve been joined on our biology/movie focused podcasts by some amazingly talented biologists to discuss some movies of immensely varying quality. So when my co-host Adam Hasik announced that he’d secured a science fiction writer as a guest, it was a chance to change pace and look at science from a plot perspective, rather than the other way around.

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Divided and Conquered

Image credit: Alex Proimos, CC BY-NC 2.0, Image Cropped

Experimental habitat fragmentation disrupts nematode infections in Australian skinks (2019), Resasco et al., Ecology. https://doi.org/10.1002/ecy.2547

The Crux

Habitat destruction is an all-too-familiar side effect of human development and expansion. But another prevalent issue is habitat fragmentation, whereby habitat isn’t completely destroyed, but instead broken up into fragments and separated by developed areas. While some may think this is good, because there is still habitat available for wildlife to inhabit, the disconnected nature of what is left makes it very difficult for most wildlife to thrive, as they require much more connected landscapes.

Though fragmentation has been well studied in the past, less is known about how it affects parasites. Because they depend on other organisms for their own survival, parasites in particular are at risk of local or even extinction due to the cascading effects of species loss (i.e., coextinction, see Did You Know?). The complex nature of many parasite life cycles, in addition to a scarcity of experimental studies, makes it difficult to predict what effects that fragmentation will have on parasites. Today’s authors used a long-running, large-scale fragmentation experiment (The Wog Wog Habitat Fragmentation Experiment) to determine how fragmentation affects host-parasite interactions.

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Measuring Immunity With Transparent Hosts

Host controls of within-host dynamics: insight from an invertebrate system (2021) Stewart Merrill et al., The American Naturalist. https://doi.org/10.1086/715355

This is a guest post by Dr. Tara Stewart Merrill

Image Credit: Per Harald Olsen, NTNU, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

The Crux

When it comes to understanding how parasites and pathogens spread, immune defenses may be an especially important factor. The immune system is the gatekeeper for parasites and pathogens (I’ll just use the term “pathogen” from here on out). Whether you are exposed to influenza, a parasitic worm, or a tick-borne bacterium, your immune response will determine the outcome of infection — either you will become infected (which benefits the pathogen’s reproduction) or you will not (which is a barrier to the pathogen’s reproduction). So now, picture a whole population of individuals. A room full of individuals with poor immune responses should result in more infections (and more transmission) than a room full of individuals with strong and robust immune defenses. By shaping the fate of pathogens, host immune defenses can shape transmission.

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Some (Don’t) Like it Hot

Do latitudinal and bioclimatic gradients drive parasitism in Odonata? (2021) da Silva et al., International Journal for Parasitology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpara.2020.11.008

Image Credit: Adam Hasik, image cropped

The Crux

If there is one thing that people know about me and my research it’s that I love parasites. They’re everywhere, and more than half of all animals are parasites. They also make ecosystems more stable and link organisms within food webs to one another. For example, some parasites connect prey animals and their predators by making it easier for the predator to find and/or eat the prey. Though they can be found all over the world, there are a variety of environmental factors that make it more likely for a parasite to be found in a given environment. Today’s study focuses on one particular hypothesis related to the effects of the environment, the latitudinal diversity gradient (LDG, see Did You Know).

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Incorporating Parasites Into Community Ecology

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again until I retire*: parasitism is THE most interesting (and arguably the most successful) life history strategy on the planet. Parasites are present in every ecosystem on the planet, and it is incredibly unlikely that any study system or ecological community is parasite-free. So why don’t we talk about them more?

As a disease ecologist, my work focuses on parasites and their place in the natural world, so I think about these organisms a lot. My PhD was centered on incorporating parasites into food webs to understand how they affect species interactions (and how species interactions in turn affect them). Failing to consider parasites can lead scientists to miss important aspects of an ecosystem and draw false conclusions.

Yet most ecological studies – even those which look at entire communities – fail to consider parasites and their effects on other organisms. I can’t blame them, parasite ecology can be difficult to get your head around. So today, I want to try and give ecologists everywhere some tips on incorporating parasites into their work.

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