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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Jan 7;276(1654):169-76. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0798.

Carotenoid-based colour of acanthocephalan cystacanths plays no role in host manipulation.

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  • 1Université de Bourgogne, 6 Boulevard Gabriel, Dijon 21000, France.


Manipulation by parasites is a catchy concept that has been applied to a large range of phenotypic alterations brought about by parasites in their hosts. It has, for instance, been suggested that the carotenoid-based colour of acanthocephalan cystacanths is adaptive through increasing the conspicuousness of infected intermediate hosts and, hence, their vulnerability to appropriate final hosts such as fish predators. We revisited the evidence in favour of adaptive coloration of acanthocephalan parasites in relation to increased trophic transmission using the crustacean amphipod Gammarus pulex and two species of acanthocephalans, Pomphorhynchus laevis and Polymorphus minutus. Both species show carotenoid-based colorations, but rely, respectively, on freshwater fish and aquatic bird species as final hosts. In addition, the two parasites differ in the type of behavioural alteration brought to their common intermediate host. Pomphorhynchus laevis reverses negative phototaxis in G. pulex, whereas P. minutus reverses positive geotaxis. In aquaria, trout showed selective predation for P. laevis-infected gammarids, whereas P. minutus-infected ones did not differ from uninfected controls in their vulnerability to predation. We tested for an effect of parasite coloration on increased trophic transmission by painting a yellow-orange spot on the cuticle of uninfected gammarids and by masking the yellow-orange spot of infected individuals with inconspicuous brown paint. To enhance realism, match of colour between painted mimics and true parasite was carefully checked using a spectrometer. We found no evidence for a role of parasite coloration in the increased vulnerability of gammarids to predation by trout. Painted mimics did not differ from control uninfected gammarids in their vulnerability to predation by trout. In addition, covering the place through which the parasite was visible did not reduce the vulnerability of infected gammarids to predation by trout. We discuss alternative evolutionary explanations for the origin and maintenance of carotenoid-based colorations in acanthocephalan parasites.

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