Tag Archives: parasite

Parasites: Maybe They’re Good?

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

The Crux

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.

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Always There for You

Evolution and maintenance of microbe-mediated protection under occasional pathogen infection (2020) Kloock et al., Ecology and Evolution, https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.6555

Image Credit: Zeynep F. Altun, CC BY-SA 2.5, Image Cropped

The Crux

Microbes are everywhere in nature, and I don’t just mean out in the wild. They live inside of every plant and animal, including humans. These microbes can be harmful, beneficial, or do nothing to their hosts. When they help us, microbes take part in what’s called “defensive mutualism”, which is where they help their hosts fight off parasites. Benefiting from this mutualistic relationship depends on whether or not there are parasites around to defend against, as microbial defense mechanisms can harm not only the parasite but also the host itself.

For this symbiotic relationship to continue and not be selected against over time, the benefits of hosting the microbe must outweigh the costs. This is all well and good when there are always a lot of parasites to defend against, but that is not always the case. Today’s authors wanted to test how changes in parasite pressure over time affected the relationship between a defensive microbe and its host.

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The Healthy Male Wins the Mate

Guest post by Miguel Gómez-Llano (Image Credit: Sharp Photography, CC BY-SA, Image Cropped)

Male-Male Competition Causes Parasite-Mediated Sexual Selection for Local Adaptation (2020) Gómez-Llano et al., The American Naturalist, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.cjsxksn35

The Crux

The natural world changes constantly: temperatures fluctuate, predators and parasites enter into the ecosystem, and the landscape itself could change (looking at you, Yellowstone). These changes mean that organisms are under a constant pressure to adapt to local conditions. Due to this pressure, one of the biggest questions for conservation biology is if species are able to adapt fast enough to keep up with environmental changes. Sexual selection is thought to promote rapid adaptation to such environmental changes, but most of the evidence comes from laboratory studies.

Our study looked at adaptation to one of nature’s ubiquitous pressures: parasitism. We were interested in the strength of selection by parasites and if there was subsequent adaptation by the host in a wild population.

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Incompetent Invaders Dilute Parasites and Alter Disease Dynamics

Guest post by Paula Tierney

Invasive freshwater fish (Leuciscus leuciscus) acts as a sink for a parasite of native brown trout Salmo trutta (2020) Tierney et al. Biological Invasions. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-020-02253-1

The Crux

From house cats to cane toads, invasive species are one of the biggest threats worldwide to native plants and wildlife, second only to habitat destruction. There are a few different definitions of an invasive species, but two consistent tenets are a) that they are a living organism spreading and forming new populations outside of their native range and b) causing some kind of damage to the native ecosystem, economy or human health. As humans move around the globe with increasing ease (these last two months aside), the spreading of invasive species is increasingly common in our globalised world.

The spread of invasive species creates new ecological interactions between native and invasive species that can impact how our native ecosystems function, including disease dynamics. One key set of interactions that can be completely changed by the introduction of the invader are that of parasites and their hosts. If development and transmission of native parasites is different in invasive hosts compared to their usual native hosts, the parasite dynamics of the whole system can be altered.

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The Enemy of My Competitor is My Friend

Image Credit: Andreas Kay, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

Specifc parasites indirectly influence niche occupation of non‑hosts community members (2018) Fernandes Cardoso et al., Oecologia, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-018-4163-x

The Crux

One of the oldest questions in community ecology is why do some species seem to co-occur with one another, while others don’t? Two hypotheses have been put forward to explain why this happens: environmental filtering and niche partitioning. Environmental filtering is when some abiotic feature of a given environment – such as the temperature or oxygen levels – prohibits some species from ever living in the same location as another. A very broad (and overly simplistic) example of this is that you would never see a shark living in the same habitat as a lion, because the shark needs to live in the ocean and the terrestrial Savannah of Africa where lions are found “filter” the sharks out. Niche partitioning, on the other hand, involves species adapting to specialize on a given part of the environment, thus lessening competition for a niche by dividing it up. You can see this with some of Darwin’s Finches, which adapted differently-sized beaks to feed on differently-sized seeds. They all still eat seeds, but they are not eating the same seeds. 

Interactions with other organisms, either direct or indirect, can also influence which species co-occur. If one species can out-compete another, they likely won’t be able to co-occur because the better competitor will take most of the resources, forcing the other out. This can all change, however, if a third organism affects the competitive ability of the superior competitor, allowing the inferior competitor to persist despite its lesser ability.

Today’s authors used two spider species to study community assembly and how it may be affected by a fungal parasite. Chrysso intervales (hereafter inland spiders) builds webs further away from rivers, while Helvibis longicauda builds webs close to the river (hereafter river spiders). Interestingly, only the river spiders are infected with the fungal parasite, thus they investigated how interactions between the two spiders may be mediated by this fungal parasite. Read more

It Pays to Break from the Crowd

Image Credit: Pete, CC BY-NC 2.0

Increased reproductive success through parasitoid release at a range margin: Implications for range shifts induced by climate change (2020) MacKay, Gross, & Ryder, Journal of Biogeography, https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13795

The Crux

Predicting the response of organisms to climate change is a challenge for ecologists and wildlife managers alike. Fortunately, some responses are common enough that it is still possible to make fairly accurate predictions about them without too much information. One common response is that of the range shift, whereby a population of organisms facing some alteration (eg. climate change) in their current habitat, making it unfavorable, begin to move to another location. This allows them to track favorable environmental conditions and possibly mitigate any negative effects of climate change.

Sounds easy, right? Just pack it all up and move when things get hard? Well, for some organisms it may be that simple (looking at you, birds), but for others (like trees) it is significantly harder to do so. Trees (and other plants) are limited in that they depend on other organisms or things like wind to help disperse their seeds. Making things even more difficult are plant species that depend on specific pollinators, and in order for a successful range shift to happen trees AND their pollinators have to make the move. Today’s authors wanted to study how relationships between trees and their pollinators changed at the leading edge of a range shift, allowing them to understand how and why trees succeed during a range shift.

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Biological Invasions & The Witcher

Image Credit: The Witcher, 2020

Science and movies often don’t go well together*. It’s no-one’s fault. Science can often be boring and riddled with uncertainties, and movies and TV require plot advancement and definitive results.

But you know what’s a scientific fact? That Henry Cavill’s chin can cut diamond, and if you thrust him into a cosplay outift he probably already had at home and send him out to slaughter a bunch of CGI monsters you’ll get something that is at the very least mildly enjoyable. And if you’re an invasion ecologist who runs a podcast looking at the ecology of movie monsters, mildly enjoyable monsters are enough to dedicate a blog post to.

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Location Location Location

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: USDACC 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

The Crux

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.
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Cooperation in the Aftermath of an Ecosystem Reboot

Today’s catch lays in front of me. As I marvel at how used to the stink of dead fish I’ve become, the fisher who brought them in points out a couple of larger Arctic charr as the researchers standing by him gush over the presence of a couple of tiny sticklebacks. He is fascinated by their appreciation of the smaller fish, which I had almost mistaken for baby trout. He offers to bring in more tomorrow if he can find them. It might not seem like the most significant of interactions, but it’s one more example of the willing assistance that the researchers here have enjoyed over the last week from local fishers.

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Can Scavengers Actually Reduce Disease Transmission?

Many organisms are vulnerable to a wide array of diseases and parasites throughout the course of their lives, but could scavengers help reduce that vulnerability? (Image Credit: The High Fin Sperm Whale, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

Do scavengers prevent or promote disease transmission? The
effect of invertebrate scavenging on Ranavirus transmission (2019) Le Sage et al., Functional Ecology, https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13335

The Crux

As intimate as the host-parasite relationship is, it is important to keep in mind that it is embedded within a complex web of other interactions within the local ecological community. To add to this complexity, all of these interactions can feed back on and effect the host-parasite relationship. One ubiquitous part of all communities is the scavenger, an organism that feeds on dead and decomposing organisms. The authors of this paper wanted to investigate how scavengers affect disease transmission in local communities.

This question in interesting because it can easily go either way, depending on the community in question. Scavengers could lower disease transmission by eating infected organisms, thus removing contagious elements from the environment. However, scavengers could also increase transmission by promoting the spread of contagious elements in the community via their own waste after they consume infected tissues.

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