A common parasite that lives in fish eyeballs seems to be a driver behind the fish’s behaviour, pulling the strings from inside its eyes.
When the parasite is young, it helps its host stay safe from predators. But once the parasite matures, it does everything it can to get that fish eaten by a bird and so continue its life cycle.
First, parasites mate in a bird’s digestive tract, shedding their eggs in its faeces.
The eggs hatch in the water into larvae that seek out freshwater snails to infect.
They grow and multiply inside the snails before being released into the water, ready to track down their next host, fish. The parasites then penetrate the skin of fish, and travel to the lens of the eye to hide out and grow. The fish then get eaten by a bird – and the cycle starts again.
Many parasites can change an animal’s behaviour to fit their own needs. Mice infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, for example, lose their fear of cats – the animal the parasite needs to reproduce inside.
In a 2015 study, Mikhail Gopko at the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow and his colleagues showed that fish infected with immature fluke larvae swam less actively than usual – making themselves less visible to predators – and were harder to catch with a net than uninfected controls.
Now, the same team has tested rainbow trout harbouring mature eye flukes – parasites ready to reproduce inside their bird hosts. The team found that these trout swam more actively than uninfected controls and stayed closer to the water’s surface.
Both traits should make fish more conspicuous to birds. When the researchers simulated a bird attack by making a shadow swoop over the tank, the fish froze – but infected fish resumed swimming sooner than uninfected ones.
Gopko says both studies show that how eye flukes manipulate their host’s behaviour depends on their age. Immature parasites “are too young and innocent to infect a next host”, he says, so their goal is to protect the fish they are living in. Mature parasites, however, are ready to reproduce – and to do so they need to get inside a bird’s gut.
Some earlier studies suggested fluke-infected fish act differently because of impaired vision. But the authors say vision problems wouldn’t explain changes to unfreezing time, or the opposite effects of mature and immature parasites.
The researchers also tested how long it took fish to unfreeze after attack when they were infected with both mature and immature parasites at once. Their behaviour matched that of fish carrying only mature parasites. When the parasites’ goals conflict, Gopko says, “mature guys are clear winners”.
This fits a pattern of young parasites decreasing their host’s likelihood of being preyed on, while older parasites increase it, says Nina Hafer, a parasitologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany. Few studies have pitted mature and immature parasites against each other in one host, she says.
“It contributes to showing how many traits and species can be affected by host manipulation, which should make it an important factor in how parasites alter the ecological interactions of their hosts,” she says.
Journal reference: Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, DOI: 10.1007/s00265-017-2300-x