"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

April 15, 2017

Amphiorchis sp.

Sea turtles have a lot of different parasites infecting them - in a previous post I wrote about a recently published study on a parasitic copepod that eats sea turtle skin. But as well as external parasites, turtles are also infected by a range of internal parasites, many of which are digenean flukes, but the ones that cause the most harm are the blood flukes. While most parasitic flukes that infect turtles live in the intestine and cause relatively little harm unless they occur in large numbers, blood flukes, as their name indicates, live in the circulatory system.

Top: shell of the worm snail Thylaeodus rugulosus,
Bottom: cercaria of Amphiorchis sp.
Photo from Fig. 1. of the paper
Infection by these blood flukes can cause a range of disease symptoms, but by far the main source of grief to their reptilian host comes from the eggs they lay in the hundreds and thousands. These microscopic eggs get circulated in the turtle's blood vessels and many of them become lodged in various parts of the turtle's body where they can cause damage to the surrounding tissue as they triggered the body's immune response. Infected turtles often have internal lesions throughout their tissue and various organs.

But how these flukes get into the turtles in the first place has long been a mystery. Like other digenean trematode flukes, blood flukes require some kind of invertebrate host - usually a snail - in which they undergo asexual/clonal reproduction to produce free-swimming larval stages call cercariae (which is the stage that infects the turtle). But there are many different species of snails in the sea, which species is/are the one(s) pumping out those turtle parasites? It is like looking for a needle in a haystack in a bigger haystack which is the size of an iceberg.

Recently, a group of very sick loggerhead turtles presented an opportunity to find out more about the life-cycle of these blood flukes. At the Sea Turtle Rescue Centre (ARCA del Mar) (which was where the study described in the previous post took place). Some juvenile turtles were exhibiting symptoms that matched those caused by blood fluke infections and it seems that they were infected by a species of fluke from the Amphiorchis genus. So how were they getting infected? The water supply at the facility is semi-closed and pre-treated to remove any contaminants - so the turtles must be getting infected by cercariae which were coming from inside the facility.

The silver lining to all this was that it was a great opportunity to work out what Amphiorchis is using as a first host to produce clonal larvae. As mentioned above, for most species of flukes, this is usually a snail, and there is only one species of snail living in the facility - worm snails that were encrusting on pipes that delivered water to the facility. Dissection of some specimens confirmed that those snails were filled with the asexual stages of Amphiorchis and thus the source of infection.

The worm snail is a peculiar family of snails call Vermetidae. Unlike other snails, this family of tube-shaped molluscs have evolved to live like tube worms or barnacles by cementing themselves to a hard surface, and casting out a sticky mucus net to haul in microalga, zooplankton, or anything else that gets caught in its snot web (see this video here). This might explain why some sea turtles end up getting such a heavy infections out in the wild. Worm snails are abundant on reefs, or form part of reefs themselves, and sea turtles often hang out around such habitats.

Furthermore, the turtle's shell also happens to be a good surfaces for these snail to stick to - while few encrusting snails in themselves usually wouldn't cause much problem to a sea turtle, if they are infected with Amphiorchis or other blood flukes, these snails get converted into little parasite factories that pumps out a stream of turtle-infecting larvae - and what better host for those tiny, short-lived cercariae to infect than the turtle that the host snail is already encrusted on?

Cribb, T. H., Crespo-Picazo, J. L., Cutmore, S. C., Stacy, B. A., Chapman, P. A., & García-Párraga, D. (2016). Elucidation of the first definitively identified life cycle for a marine turtle blood fluke (Trematoda: Spirorchiidae) enables informed control. International Journal for Parasitology 47: 61-67.